New Guidance for Reporting Transparency in Family Cases

New draft guidelines for reporting on family proceedings have been published by the President of the Family Division, in response to a successful appeal by journalist Louise Tickle against a reporting restriction relating to care proceedings involving a minor child.

Unlike civil cases, which are largely open to the public, family cases are generally held in private. Whilst reporters and legal bloggers are permitted to attend certain family cases, they are constrained when reporting on these proceedings as statutory reporting restrictions apply to hearings held in private and proceedings relating to children.

Ms Tickle’s appeal highlighted the uncertain, expensive and time-consuming process faced by journalists (often acting without legal representation) in applying to lift a reporting restriction in the family courts. As Ms Tickle stated, “this meant that few journalists ever set foot in a family court”.

The new guidelines clarify the procedure to apply to lift or vary a reporting restriction and for publishing family judgments, in particular:

Journalists can apply orally in court or by email after the proceedings, rather than being limited to a formal paper application. The court is also under an obligation to be ‘astute to assist journalists and legal bloggers seeking to attend a hearing or to relax a reporting restriction.’

The recent anonymisation guidelines and accompanying checklists are explicitly endorsed. These were first introduced by the NYAS Young People’s Participation Group and they aim to avoid jigsaw identification of children and to provide guidance on the treatment of sexually explicit descriptions of sexual abuse of children.

Significantly, the new guidelines confirm that the court must conduct a balancing exercise between privacy and transparency (ECHR article 8, 6 and 10). The court in so doing must provide a ‘reasoned judgment’ explaining the court’s determination in relation to any application to lift or vary a reporting restriction and on whether the relevant judgment should be published.

The guidelines also confirm that the standard rule of costs in children cases will also apply to applications to lift reporting restrictions within those proceedings. Therefore, journalists are not at risk of incurring their opponent’s legal costs should their application be unsuccessful (unless their behaviour is ‘reprehensible or they have taken an unreasonable stance.’)

These new guidelines (if adopted) will provide much needed clarity for journalists and judges alike and represent a welcome step towards greater transparency in the family courts.

Written by Nykol O’Shea