early settlement proposals in financial remedy proceedings

Is the family court ‘veil of secrecy’ about to be lifted?

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James Harbottle
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Is the family court ‘veil of secrecy’ about to be lifted?

It is not often that the family justice system makes the national headlines, but last week it did.

Ian Walker - Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ M
Ian Walker – Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ Managing Director

The big news story was that the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane announced his intention to lift the ‘veil of secrecy’ that many claim has up until now surrounded the family justice system.


The need for more openness

As the President said, for at least the last thirty years the question of whether there should be more openness in the conduct of family proceedings has been a live issue.

“At the heart of the issue”, he said, “is the tension that exists between two principal policy drivers, namely, on the one hand, the need to enhance public confidence in the Family Court and, on the other, the need to maintain confidentiality by safeguarding the privacy of those who turn to the court for protection or for the resolution of intimate disputes.”

But many claim that the courts are not so much operating in private as in secret, hiding what they do from public scrutiny. This in turn leads to mistrust, and often accusations of bias and other bad practices.

Sir Andrew pointed out that there had been efforts at making the courts more open, but that the pace of change has been ‘glacial’. He said: “The level of legitimate media and public concern about the workings of the Family Court is now such that it is necessary for the court to regard openness as the new norm. I have, therefore, reached the clear conclusion that there needs to be a major shift in culture and process to increase the transparency of the system in a number of respects.”


Proposals for change

So what exactly is the President proposing? family court

First of all he intends to allow more journalists to attend Family Court proceedings, and report on what happened. This will not, however, mean that journalists will be able to attend all hearings, or report on everything that happens in the cases where they do attend. Judges will still be able to decide in each case whether they can attend, and reporting will still be subject to ensuring that the anonymity of the children and their family is maintained.

Secondly, the President proposes allowing parents to communicate information relating to children proceedings to accredited journalists. However, the purpose of the communication would be limited to discussion of the case and informing the journalist of details of the proceedings. The information given would be subject to a prohibition on publication, but the journalist would be able to attend and report on any hearings.

Thirdly, Sir Andrew wants to see many more family court judgments published. He says he will ask all judges to publish anonymised versions of at least 10% of their judgments each year.

Fourthly Sir Andrew says that “there is a need to work with the media to establish a relationship of trust and confidence in order to ensure that any reporting of Family court proceedings is reliable and well informed.” Obviously, there is little to be gained by way of public confidence in the system if the journalists who are allowed into the courts then produce inaccurate reports of the proceedings.Ian Walker Team Meeting regarding family court

Fifthly the President proposes a scheme of compulsory data collection at the end of each case, saying that “better data collection could be transformational in terms of understanding the decisions that are being made, seeing patterns and problems, and ultimately achieving better outcomes.”

Lastly, the President proposes a family court online resource, which will explain the work of the Family Court, how cases are dealt with, what other options exist for dispute resolution and how to make an application.

The President clearly accepts that these changes will take time to implement. Whether they will be sufficient to counter the allegation that the family courts operate a secret system of justice, we will have to wait and see.