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Privacy in the family courts

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have at some point seen the news about the acrimonious separation of Hollywood power couple, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Not only are they involved in divorce proceedings, they have also unfortunately become engaged in a custody battle over their six children. The American legal system functions very differently to that in the UK and the same rules cannot be applied to proceedings here. But nonetheless, the Jolie-Pitt children’s involvement in the legal proceedings are being frequently reported about in the UK. Thankfully, this week Brad and Angelina have agreed to settle the remainder of their divorce in private, which can only serve to benefit their children in the long run.

The case has raised interesting issues about the privacy of family courts in the USA and the same issues can arise in the UK, despite many family matters being heard in private court. More and more frequently we are hearing about “super-injunction” cases and the interest and social media storm about celebrity relationship breakdown seems to be at an all time high; but what about the normal family away from the celebrity microscope? Surely a family’s privacy should be respected and their family law proceedings kept confidential? A number of high profile groups, such as Fathers for Justice, would suggest otherwise and state that there is too much secrecy in the family courts. Fathers for Justice want to “open the door on closed courts” and there is certainly a valid point insofar as fairness and equality are concerned but where do we draw the line? How do we protect people’s Article 8 human right to “a private and family life”? And, most importantly, how do we protect the children who have no choice but to be drawn into adult disputes?

In family proceedings, typically children cannot not be identified. If the proceedings relate to the child’s upbringing, hearings are generally held in private and so reporting restrictions apply. The court may use its discretion to relax these restrictions and should balance the private interests of the parties against the public interest which favours disclosure. Public interest in itself is hard to define. It is not enough to say simply that “people are interested” but it must also have some kind of impact and relevance on wider society for the public to be made aware of otherwise confidential information. One could clearly argue that children’s names, be they celebrity or otherwise, do not meet this criteria especially when judgments can be anonymised and then put into the public forum. Indeed, when a celebrity is involved and their children are well known, there is also an argument for the adult parties’ to remain anonymous as they could otherwise be used to identify the children.

Last summer, new guidance for Judges was published regarding the anonymity of children in the family court. The guide was financed by the Nuffield Foundation charity with the Association of Lawyers for Children also supporting the project. A number of recommendations were made and the judiciary were asked to give careful consideration to any information incorporated into a write-up which is later made public in order to protect the welfare of the children involved. There are clearly strong arguments for family matters to continue to be held in private court. However, it is also for the parties to protect their children and ensure as far as possible that all information relating to the case is kept confidential and they do not encourage publication in any form, including posts and comments on social media.

This article was written by Emma Taylor, Graduate Legal Executive. Emma is a member of the Association of Lawyers for Children which is committed to promote justice for children and young people.

If you need help with regards to your family problems and want to request a free 30 minute no obligation initial consultation, please contact Emma Taylor or Amy Trevellick on 01273 956270 or email advice@goodlawsolicitors.co.uk.

 

 

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