October 20, 2014

Transparency or privacy in Family Courts? Getting the balance right

Cases in Family Courts are held in private, which means that the media and general public are not allowed in court to watch and report unless they have the permission of the court to do so. Because of this, the family justice system has often faced criticism that it is shrouded in secrecy and lacks accountability. It’s not surprising that Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, announced his determination to take steps to improve access to and reporting of family proceedings so the new Family Court is not saddled with the same stigma.

One of the first steps taken was to issue guidance for the Courts in the publication of judgments within family proceedings. Since that guidance came into force in February 2013 the number of published judgments of circuit judges in particular has increased significantly.

Protection and anonymity

However, this does not mean that anonymity has been disregarded. The identities of the children and families involved remain anonymous except in rare cases where it is considered to be in the public interest to reveal these. However, the identity of experts and local authorities is made public unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.

Sir James has now opened up the consultation process by asking for input from professionals involved in the family justice system and the media to comment on the impact of increasing transparency and how it can best be done. Questions are asked as to what type of cases could potentially be dealt with in public.

Research undertaken by the National Youth Advocacy Service and the Association of Lawyers for Children has raised serious concerns about the effect on children if reporting restrictions are relaxed. The study indicates that children, whose welfare must be the utmost consideration of the Court, are very worried that in the 21st century world of the widespread media reporting, privacy is even harder to maintain. In small communities families would be easy to identify despite anonymity. They make the point that the children are not involved in the family justice system through any choice. This is a difficult balancing act as parents who feel failed by the judicial system (and or local authority) are unable to open the matter for public debate and hold the system to account.

It will be interesting to see what suggestions are made within the consultation process to ensure that the balance between transparency and privacy is appropriately met.

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