It was just over eight years ago that I first set foot in a family court. I was researching an article about domestic abuse and, naively, thought I understood the restrictions on reporting from these types of legal hearings held in private. Looking back now, I laugh because, in truth, I didn’t have a clue as to just how wide the reporting restrictions stretched, or how utterly stifling to public interest journalism they were.
I also didn’t appreciate quite how intrusive and draconian the powers exercised by judges in family courts were. Nor did I grasp the near total lack of independent scrutiny of their decisions, or indeed of the local authorities and court-appointed experts that are so influential within the family justice system.
Family court orders are life-changing and breathtaking in their reach into our private lives. For the mothers, fathers, children, siblings and other relatives affected, judges’ decisions – and the evidence on which they are reached – are controversial and contested.
Over the years, as my inbox filled up with what became thousands of emails from people who had been through the family justice system, it became clear that many people arrive at a family court feeling frightened and distressed, and frequently leave even more desperate and traumatised than when they’d gone in.
And as I discovered, they weren’t allowed to tell journalists why. In fact, they weren’t allowed to tell us anything of the details of their case, or risk being held in contempt of court.
What was going on?
I soon found out that, while as a press-card-carrying journalist I was entitled to observe private family hearings, it would take expensive and risky applications to the judge to have any chance of reporting what I saw. It could take weeks, but more often months, sometimes up to a year. Two applications I’ve made have gone to the court of appeal. My challenges to reporting restrictions have been heard by the country’s most senior judges. Most times, I’ve won the right to report – and sometimes, I’ve lost. Whatever the outcome, this is not a practical or feasible way for the media to hold an immensely powerful arm of the state to account.
That is why I’m thrilled that after years of many organisations and individuals, including journalists, lawyers, family members and MPs, making compelling arguments for more transparency, a reporting pilot launches today in three family court areas – Cardiff, Carlisle and Leeds. It could completely revolutionise the way that these life-changing hearings are reported.
Over the next 12 months, journalists attending hearings in these pilot courts will be able to do pretty much everything we currently can’t, as long as we anonymise the family members involved. It means:
- We’ll be entitled to see a variety of documents that we’re currently not allowed to access to help us understand the case.
- We’ll also be able to quote from them.
- We’ll be able to report what we see taking place in a private family court hearing.
- We’ll be allowed to name the local authority involved.
- And family members – in fact, any party to the case – will be free to tell us about their case, and we’ll be free to quote them.
Family court reporting will still be fiddly and sensitive and time consuming. It will still require painstaking care to ensure the rules are strictly observed and families’ anonymity is protected. But it won’t any longer, in these pilot courts at least, be banned by law – it will, instead, be possible. News editors will have far more reassurance that sending a journalist to court will result in a story that can be published, rather than one that could put them in court, in contempt and in the clink.
The events of family courts are just as compelling as criminal trials. The public interest in scrutiny of state power is just as important. The fates of people whose futures are changed by judges’ decisions are due just as much attention by the media. And for anyone who wants to report as part of the pilot, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has created a guide on its website to help journalists understand and navigate the new rules. If this pilot is a success, it could be rolled out to other family courts across England and Wales. Whether it is a success depends on journalists going to court and sharpening their pencils.
Header picture: A man carries a child on his shoulders. Credit: Sally Anscombe via Getty Images
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