The family justice system generally operates in private. The law prevents the detail of what takes place in family proceedings about children from being published – or even spoken about – by family members, other parties to the case or accredited journalists. It may be a contempt of court to do so. A separate law provides for anonymity for children, and by extension, their family members, until the conclusion of proceedings (a judge may extend this for longer).
And yet life-changing powers are exercised daily by the state in these hidden hearings, with little outside scrutiny or effective, independent accountability.
Family judges’ powers include:
- Extinguishing the legal relationship between parent and child when ordering adoption
- Removing newborn babies at birth
- Ordering children to be removed into state care for their own protection
- Deprivation of a child’s liberty including the use of physical and chemical restraint
- Deciding whether domestic abuse and sexual assault has taken place or not
- Protection from forced marriage, honour-based abuse or female genital mutilation
- Imposing non-molestation orders with serious criminal sanctions
- Limiting or preventing a parent from having contact with their child
- Deciding on how finances and assets should be split when a couple divorces.
With family courts in England and Wales hearing more than 200,000 cases a year, involving hundreds of thousands of family members and tens of thousands of children, the public interest in understanding family justice processes and orders is both urgent and compelling.
On 1 November 2022, the House of Commons justice select committee published a report, Open justice: court reporting in the digital age, which stated that the laws governing the reporting of family court proceedings were “no longer fit for purpose” and recommended that they should be “reviewed and reformed”.
Twelve months earlier almost to the day, Sir Andrew McFarlane, the president of the family division, published his own review of transparency in the family court, in which he said there must be a period of “accelerated change”.
As a result of the president’s review of transparency, a family court reporting pilot is due to start in three areas of England and Wales on 30 January 2023. Under a new Practice Guidance which varies the ban on reporting that normally prevails, journalists attending family court hearings in these three areas will be allowed to report for the first time the detail of what takes place in court – subject to strict anonymity for the family members involved.
The pilot is taking place in four courts in three areas, Cardiff, Carlisle and Leeds – for details on these courts please see the map below.
Header image: The Royal Courts of Justice
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