Suzanne Dodd, Associate Solicitor, discusses the recent discussion of why the family courts are so secretive and what is being done to ensure transparency.
The presumption of secrecy in cases where children are involved has been the norm since around 1960. Whilst reporters have the right to attend court, they do not have the right to report on cases taking place.
The public remains mystified with the inner workings of the family court which can lead to great misunderstanding, frustration and paranoia about the system and how things are worked out and what actually happens when you are in the court room. It is something the GoodLaw Solicitors LLP team frequently have to guide our clients through.
This has been a matter of real discussion between professionals and the public. In light of this, the transparency review was undertaken and published last week. It was conducted by the President of the High Court Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane.
The report moves towards openness being the normality and specifically; journalists being allowed to report what goes on, family members being able to speak to reporters and more judgments being published. This will of course all be subject to anonymization.
Sir Andrew McFarlane states "These twin principles of confidence and confidentiality are not, in my view, mutually exclusive and it is possible to achieve both goals."
It is clear that often proceedings are very difficult for children and reporting on this could make the situation far worse with details being available forever online and to be seen by anyone. How successful will anonymisation be? Who will be responsible for this? What will happen if it goes wrong? Amendments after publication would do little to help.
The system is already overburdened. Delay is at an all-time high and resolution of this is not on the horizon any time soon. Publishing of Judgments will put further pressure on Judges with the task of anonymizing them an even greater burden and responsibility for someone.
What is essential however is an improvement in the public's trust in the system and a level of transparency to remove the mystique and fear of what happens behind the court door. Already within proceedings when parents struggle to understand what is happening they threaten to reveal information about their own case and perhaps this is something that will lessen with a greater basic understanding across the board. Parents struggle to understand why they cannot talk and share information with their friends and family but it is about protecting the children, not just now but in the future too especially with historic internet posts being so easily searchable.
With greater care being taken within proceedings, due to them being open to scrutiny, it is anticipated that this will lead to improvements in practice although one hopes that this is something we are addressing on a daily basis already. The review confirms that public confidence in the family justice system is to be encouraged and this is something that really has been long overdue.
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