Taking a family dispute to court is an inherently stressful experience. When you factor in the wide scope a court has in making decisions for you and your family, combined with the perceived secrecy of the family courts, it can be an uncertain time for all.
With the lack of transparency and accountability both long-term concerns of the existing system, there are major changes planned for UK family court proceedings.
This guide will take you through the changes being piloted in what is known as the Transparency Pilot.
The family courts
Unlike the criminal courts, which are open for the public to access and frequently reported on, going through family court is a private and confidential process. Because of this, many members of the public know very little about family law proceedings. Often, their only exposure to the family court system is television programmes like Judge Rinder, and US-style televised litigation (think Amber Heard vs Jonny Depp or the OJ Simpson trial).
Until now, journalists, bloggers and reporters have not been allowed in family proceedings (with some rare exceptions and the judge’s permission) and the information shared within family court cases is private. You could even go to prison, or be fined, for sharing information about proceedings, even your own case.
For years, it’s been debated whether there should be more transparency in the family courts. Contributing to the slow pace of change is the tension between two major factors: the need to boost public trust in the family court and the need to maintain confidentiality and privacy for those who use the family court to resolve family disputes.
What is the Transparency Pilot?
The Transparency Pilot is UK government-initiated scheme launched in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle on 30th January 2023. It aims to allow ‘pilot reporters’, including accredited journalists and legal bloggers, to report on cases heard in the family court, subject to strict rules of anonymity.
Reporters’ access is being tested to ensure that it can be done safely and with minimal disruption to those involved in the cases and the courts.
Under the new rules, a judge will set out what can and cannot be reported by making a “transparency order” which allows for the following:
- Journalists, reporters and bloggers can come into family court hearings, watch the hearing and then report what happens;
- Journalists, reporters and bloggers can look at certain documents from the case;
- You can talk to journalists, reporters and bloggers about your own case;
The cases will still be anonymised. No one is allowed to name or take photos of the mums, dads, husbands and wives or their children. Although it may be possible for you to recognise your case based on specific details (particularly in the local press) crucially, the aim is to make sure that others cannot identify your case by any of the facts reported.
Under the pilot, who can attend and what can they see?
The only people allowed access to report on your case are journalists with a UK Press Card, or a lawyer who is not involved in the case but is authorised to attend hearings just like a journalist (also called a legal blogger).
This prevents any member of the public or person with an interest in your case coming to your hearings under the guise of being a journalist.
The journalists can only see the basic case documents, which explain what the case is about and what the parties’ positions are – if they want to see anything else, such as a report from a social worker or a report into your pension then they must ask the judge for specific permission.
What if I don’t want my case to be reported?
Firstly, do not panic. For the time being this trial is taking place in just three courts – and not every case in those courts will be reported on – the judge will decide in each case whether it is a suitable case for journalist access to be allowed.
If the judge decides that it is, but you would like it to remain private, you can request that the transparency order be changed.
The judge will balance the things that you are worried about against the overall aim of the pilot – to make the family court a more open and understood system – and then decide whether the reporting can continue.
And remember, no matter what the judge orders, you don’t have to speak to a reporter unless you want to.
Why is the Transparency Pilot happening?
There are multiple reasons, but fundamentally the overall aim is to improve the courts and make law fairer for everyone.
In the world of law, the usual cases that get reported are typically ones that reach the higher courts – complex divorce cases with millions (or billions) in assets, international children cases and ‘high profile’ celebrities.
This means that the everyday judgements are not open to public scrutiny, therefore patterns of decisions and perceived biases cannot be seen and the risk of a miscarriage of justice increases.
Over time the hope is this will change. With enough reporting of everyday decisions the expectations of the court will be better understood and both the judges, and the courts will be held accountable for the procedural issues.
What do the lawyers think of the transparency pilot?
Every solicitor is different, but the overarching feeling is that this is a long overdue change. We spoke with Leeds-based Stowe family lawyer, Jake Mitchell, one of our solicitors working within the pilot, to ask his thoughts:
Q. What can a parent or spouse going through the family court at Leeds expect to change?
JM. Very little. Considering the number of cases that go through the courts each day, chances are that an individual’s case won’t be reported on in any event. However, if they do, then they should expect to receive the same respect and confidentiality they would have received before the pilot. The reporters and legal bloggers that are allowed into hearings will not have any impact on your case, and they should be well versed in the law (perhaps lawyers themselves) so one would hope their subsequent reporting should be accurate.
Q. What can a parent or spouse do if they don’t want to be reported on?
JM. Tell their solicitor and ask for the judge to be made aware. If you think that your ability to go through proceedings will be impaired by the presence of a reporter then the judge may well decide that your case can be excused from the pilot.
Q. What do you expect to see change in the long term?
JM. With common issues such as when a mother is moving home and wants to change her son’s school, or when a father wants to take his daughter to on holiday but the mother says no, there is little to no precedent to go on.
If the pilot goes well and reports on these everyday disputes become better understood, it will help mums and dads, husbands and wives in knowing what to expect.
It may also encourage compromise and co-parenting outside of the court – if you already have a good idea what is going to happen, then you may be minded to think about settling early without the need to attend court.