Family courts told to cooperate with journalists’ requests for access

SNS comments: This is useful, but opening up the family courts needs to go far beyond letting journalists attend and report on family court cases. Those involved need to be able to discuss their case (and their documents) with family, friends and advocates, and all court judgements must be published on Bailli so they can be publicly scrutinised.

By Michael Cross 29 October 2019, the Law Society Gazette

Parties in family courts should go out of their way to cooperate with reporters seeking to cover proceedings, according to new guidance from the head of the Family Division. This would include asking reporters from the outset if they intended to challenge reporting restrictions. 

In the final version of guidance for courts dealing with applications from journalists published today, Sir Andrew McFarlane says: ‘Courts should be astute to assist reporters seeking to attend a hearing, or to relax reporting restrictions, and should provide them with relevant contact details of the court office, the judge’s clerk and the parties where requested’.

The guidance, published in draft last May, updates a policy initiated by McFarlane’s predecessor Sir James Munby, under which accredited journalists were allowed to attend, but not to report details of, hearings of the Family Court.

Noting that reporters may be unsure of when they can apply to vary restrictions, the guidance states: ‘At the start of a hearing attended by a reporter the judge should enquire if such an application is to be made and, if there is none at that stage, invite the reporter to alert the court if the situation changes, either at a convenient stage during the hearing or at its conclusion.’

When an application is made, ‘The court, and any advocate appearing for parties to the proceedings, should provide assistance in terms of the relevant law and procedure to be followed. Any party opposing the application may then make submissions. The reporter should then be given an opportunity to reply.’ 

On costs, the guidance says that the ‘standard approach’ will apply. ‘A reporter, media organisation or their lawyers should not be at risk of a costs order unless he or she has engaged in reprehensible behaviour or has taken an unreasonable stance.’

Campaigners for transparency welcomed the policy. Journalist Louise Tickle said the guidance tackles the ‘practical awkwardness’ of not knowing when you should – or may – address the court. ‘Sometimes I’ve been about to raise my hand but then things have moved on, and a case can draw to a conclusion very quickly without there being any opportunity to say a word or make your case.’