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14 January 2022

McFarlane: Greater Openness Will Drive Public Confidence In Family Courts

Media reporting of the courts has a vital role in underpinning public confidence in the justice system, the President of the Family Division told MPs this week.

Last year, Sir Andrew McFarlane announced a major programme of reform designed to open the family courts up to greater scrutiny which was welcomed by the News Media Association.

At a hearing of the Justice Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into open justice, Sir Andrew said that it was “highly unhealthy for society” for the public not to be able to see the workings of the family court. 

He said: “The main driver towards making this change is to do with public confidence in the system and that’s largely delivered by the public having access through the media to what goes on rather than individual members of the public.”

Many of the recommendations made the NMA in its submission to the review such as provision of advance listing information to the media were taken up by Sir Andrew when his report ‘Confidence and Confidentiality: Transparency in the Family Courts’.

Addressing MPs on Tuesday, Sir Andrew said: “It’s not tenable to say 'well, solely to protect the identity of the individuals everything has got to be kept out of the public gaze and can’t be reported.'

“There must be a way of allowing openness so that people can see what we do, understand what we do, how we do it, why we make the decisions and yet maintain the anonymity of the individuals involved.”

Discussions with national and local editors would be vital to introducing transparency to the family courts, he said.

Sir Andrew said that in the experience of most judges sitting in the family courts and the court of protection “journalists are very responsible and understand these issues and, if you give them access to the correct detail, that’s what they report.

“So, I have some confidence that it will be responsibly and professionally undertaken by the journalists.”  

The Committee also heard evidence from John Battle, ITN head of legal and compliance and chair of the Media Lawyers Association and Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research at The Legal Education Foundation.