Family Court Files: inside the secretive part of the justice system

After two decades as a court reporter, lecturer Polly Rippon describes reporting for the first time on decisions that can determine children’s futures, thanks to a family courts transparency pilot

“I know this sounds a bit James Bond-esque, but I’ve been expecting you,” district judge Gillian Bell said. I was in court to report on hearings under the family court reporting pilot introduced at the beginning of the year. While the judge’s first words to me came as a surprise, they also put me at ease. It was clear there had been discussions behind the scenes about having a journalist in court.

I’ve been a court reporter for more than two decades, covering criminal cases in the crown and magistrates’ courts and coroner’s inquests, and I teach court reporting to journalism students at the University of Sheffield. Naturally, I was interested to learn more when I heard about the family court reporting pilot.

The principle of open justice means court proceedings should be held in public to promote public confidence in and respect for the administration of justice. Journalists are allowed to scrutinise and report on how public money is spent and decisions are taken in most state-run institutions – it’s an essential part of democracy.

Press-card-carrying journalists are allowed to attend most types of family court hearings. But until the reporting pilot launched in four courts in three areas – Cardiff, Carlisle and Leeds – in January, we had not been allowed to report on what we saw. Equally, families were forbidden from speaking to reporters about their cases.

The ban on family court reporting always seemed wrong to me. Important decisions are being made about children’s welfare, decisions that can affect the rest of their lives, behind closed doors.

The argument has always been that children should not come to harm as a result of reporting their case. I wholeheartedly agree. But even reporting on cases anonymously wasn’t allowed.

Journalists who cover the criminal courts and inquests adhere to reporting restrictions all the time in highly sensitive situations, such as cases affecting young people and victims of sexual offences. Both are entitled to anonymity for their protection and yet we are still able to safely tell their stories. The family courts pilot is now making that possible in some of the most hidden hearings in the English justice system.

A day in court

My experience of reporting under the pilot began when the Yorkshire Post commissioned me to write a piece about family court hearings in Leeds. Over the course of a day, I observed three hearings.

The first was the case of Maria*, whose fifth child, an eight-month-old baby, was taken permanently into care. The child would eventually be adopted by his foster family because the court found him to be at risk of “significant physical and emotional harm and neglect” due to his parents’ chaotic lifestyle and history of drug use and violence.

None of the child’s family were present in court. Judge Nancy Hillier was told Maria was too upset to attend. The mother, the court heard, was one of thousands of women trapped in a heartbreaking cycle of getting pregnant and having their children removed.

I was served a transparency order at the start of proceedings that determined what I was able to report from the hearing, providing the identity of the parties involved was protected. And under the reporting pilot, journalists can request to see certain documents to support their reporting. I received copies of the case documents and papers such as a written opening statement and a case chronology, which gave me a fuller picture of the situation.

The James Bond comment had come as I was due to sit in the two following hearings. In these cases, the transparency order was made during the hearings. District judge Bell asked those present if they had any objections. Both families, who spoke through their solicitors, said they did. They were worried about their cases being reported publicly.

The judge explained their details would be anonymised and it wouldn’t be possible for anyone reading my article to recognise them. This delayed proceedings slightly and I was concerned I wouldn’t be allowed to report, but I felt reassured when the judge explained the reporting was in the wider public interest. Ultimately, Bell allowed me to report.

One case saw the judge being asked to make an interim care order for a seven-year-old boy with “extreme behavioural difficulties”. He was destructive and struggled to regulate his mood, the court heard. There were also “questions” about autism and ADHD.

We heard how the child had been in care for two months because of violence towards his mother, social care staff, teachers and a younger sibling. It was decided he should undergo a psychological assessment to determine his future. Expert evidence would assess whether the boy’s mother, who we were told has a low IQ, can care for him. His mother wanted him to go into care. His father’s whereabouts were unknown.

The judge made an interim care order to allow the boy’s mother to undergo cognitive and psychological assessments. The case was then adjourned.

Help from court staff

The final case of the day centred on the future of an autistic teenager with a history of suicidal thoughts. The girl had been taken into care in January after she claimed she had been assaulted by her father. The 15-year-old was living with him and her stepmother after her relationship with her mother broke down. Her father denied assaulting her, and said he had “washed his hands of her”.

The court was told how the girl had begun self-harming and threatening to take her own life. We heard how she was “deeply unhappy”, and that neither parent wanted her to remain at home. District judge Bell made an interim care order so she can stay in her current placement and a final care plan can be drawn up.

As a reporter in unfamiliar surroundings, I felt fortunate to be assisted by the court staff, solicitors and judges. All seemed keen to help and interested in hearing about the reporting pilot. That some journalists had reported from Leeds family court since the pilot began had helped.

I would advise journalists wanting to cover family court hearings to contact the court beforehand because this made things run smoothly on the day. Explain the types of cases you’d like to cover, such as final hearings or interim case management hearings. When at court, be sure to request transparency orders in relation to the cases you are sitting in to allow you to report on them.

My experience was fascinating. I hope this would have also been the case had I attended court unannounced. Highlighting these cases is vital because they take place day in, day out, in courts up and down the country, and until this year, with the introduction of the pilot, we’ve not been able to shine a light on this important area of court business.

* Names have been changed to protect identities

Reporter: Polly Rippon
Bureau Local editor: Gareth Davies
Deputy editors: Chrissie Giles and Katie Mark
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Emily Goddard

Our Bureau Local project has several funders. None of our funders has any influence over our editorial decisions or output.

Subject:

  • Family courts
  • Disabilities
  • Transparency
  • Press freedom
  • Democracy
  • Justice system

Area:

  • Local