How to operate in family court – and what to think about before you arrive
Always bring an in-date press card. Only holders of UK Press Authority-issued press cards are entitled to attend private family hearings (you can ask the judge to allow you to attend if you forget it, but you may not be successful), and the reporting pilot requires journalists attending hearings to have one. If you can’t produce your press card on request, or it’s out of date, you may be refused attendance, and you will not be allowed to take advantage of the pilot rules allowing you to report on the hearing or speak to parties about the details of their case.
Arrive in good time for the start. Although it’s permitted to walk into a family court hearing after it’s begun, it doesn’t feel comfortable, and nor is it sensitive to family members who may be in the midst of giving or hearing evidence. It may also cause disruption to the hearing if a party wants to object to the presence of the media.
If you know about the case a few days in advance, you have the perfect opportunity to ask the parties’ solicitors for disclosure of the documents you are permitted to see as of right under the pilot rules. The documents must be provided to you at a hearing you attend under the pilot, or as soon as possible afterwards.
If you get copies of documents during the hearing, even a quick read through in a break will make a big difference to your ability to understand what takes place in court, and to your ability to deal with any issues regarding attendance or reporting.
In the hearing
Courts range from large and grand to a small office-type room with a few desks (chambers). Only the largest tend to have a designated area for press. Try to sit somewhere that gives a view of the lawyers’ and parties’ faces; acoustics in courtrooms can be poor and a seat at the back where you can’t hear or see is unhelpful for accurate note-taking.
Attending a hearing remotely may be possible on request – some hearings are still run exclusively on a remote basis in any case – but the court is not required to facilitate remote attendance for the benefit of any media wishing to attend in that form.
If you are attending remotely, it can be more comfortable for parties for any media to turn their cameras off during the hearing.
Protecting your sources is as relevant in the context of reporting on family courts as it is anywhere else. Nobody, including the judge, should ask how you found out about a court case, or if anyone asked you to attend – this is not relevant information to the court.
While it can feel particularly awkward if a judge asks the question, you do not have to answer. In some circumstances, explaining that one party asked you to come to court could even put your source at risk.
It is simplest to say that as a journalist holding a recognised press card, you are entitled to attend family hearings as part of your job, hence your presence in court.
The Transparency Order
The transparency order governs what you can and can’t report. It sets out the standard restrictions under which the reporting pilot operates, and it should be issued at the end of the hearing. To contravene it may be a contempt of court, which is potentially punishable by imprisonment.
Although most transparency orders will look similar, the standard transparency order can be adjusted by the judge to take account of the facts of the case; she can do so of her own accord or after hearing argument from any party, including from media representatives in court.
It is essential to read and fully understand the terms of the transparency order applicable to the particular case/hearing before filing a story, and to send it to your editor and lawyers along with your copy/TV/radio package. Make sure they are aware of any non-standard restrictions that have been imposed.
If any adjustments to the terms of the order are canvassed and approved in court, make a careful note of them and ask for the order to be updated and a copy to be promptly provided to you.
After the hearing
Though business cards are unusual now, the family court is one context in which it’s useful to have a few to hand out, so that a) the lawyers can easily forward court documents you are entitled to see, and b) so that you can be emailed the draft transparency order following the hearing.
Checking the draft transparency order
You should be emailed the draft transparency order before it is sent back to the judge and sealed. This is an important opportunity for reporters to carefully check that the terms under which they are allowed to report are precisely what was ordered by the judge in the hearing they have just attended. If the order is unclear or does not match your understanding, raise a query.
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Coordinator: Louise Tickle
With thanks to: Rights of Women, Lucy Reed
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