Discovering an appetite for family court coverage

I recently covered cases in family court for the first time as part of a pilot to improve transparency in the family justice system.

My experience at Cardiff family court, one of the locations in three cities in England and Wales that have lifted reporting restrictions, has left me with optimism for the pilot and revealed the public’s interest in this type of coverage. That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t challenges, the most significant of which came before I’d even arrived at court.

I had asked days in advance for a list of cases scheduled for a particular day – which I’d chosen at random – but the court replied that “reporters are required to know which case it is they wish to sit in on”.

That meant waiting until the morning of the day I attended, when the listings appeared on the CourtServe website. Deciding on the cases to prioritise was difficult because the hearing listings detailed little more than a start time, expected duration, type of hearing – “final hearing”, for example – and the words “re a minor”.

I emailed the court asking for transparency orders in six cases but was told I could not report on four of them because they were private law cases.

Things started to run more smoothly when I arrived at the court for the two remaining cases. I’d been told I would need to make “oral representations” for transparency orders, but both judges quickly granted them without my input.

The morning case involved a mother faced with losing custody of her daughter due to neglect. The mother’s barrister had said her client would rather the case wasn’t reported but if it had to be, she wanted anonymity ensured. The judge assured her this was covered by the terms of the pilot.

As he read his conclusion, approving Cardiff Council’s long-term foster care plan, the mother broke down in tears.

The council’s barrister sent me the detailed judgment, but said I should wait for the “finalised” version before reporting. My understanding was that any changes would be minor, such as typo fixes, but I was happy to wait given no other journalists had attended. I was told it could take a couple of days to arrive, but I got it the following morning.

The published story has been read more than 160,000 times, far beyond my expectations.

In the second case – another custody battle – the family had no objection to the transparency order and, if anything, seemed glad of it. For about half an hour, a father with learning difficulties became increasingly distressed as he struggled to understand the questions he was asked. It was then suggested that the questions be put in writing, meaning a delay – but I intend to keep following the case.

From clerks to lawyers to judges, everyone I interacted with was helpful and courteous. The lack of information available before a day in family court, though, may prove an obstacle to wider coverage.

In an era of stretched newsrooms, I suspect few will devote resources if they have to almost randomly select the cases they cover, which seems inevitable unless they are tipped off by someone involved in a case. I’m grateful to have editors who allowed me to go in with little idea of what to expect.

The response to the story suggests real interest in the family courts, and scrutiny can only be healthy for a system in which decisions have life-changing implications for so many.

Read Conor’s report for Wales Online here.

Header picture: A woman pushes a child on a swing in a park. Credit: SBenitez via Getty Images

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