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04 November 2021

Sweeping Reforms To Make Family Courts More Transparent

Journalists should be able to report on what they see and hear in the family courts in order to restore public confidence in the system, President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane has said.

In a major review of transparency the Family Courts published last week, Sir Andrew described a series of far reaching reforms to open up the family courts to public scrutiny.

“Through open justice, the workings of the justice system are held up to public scrutiny by hearings being open to the public and/or by permitting media reporting of the proceedings,” Sir Andrew said.  “The work of the Family Court is of significant importance in the life of our society, yet, as is plain, the current limited degree of openness does not permit effective public scrutiny.

“It is by openness that judges are held to account for the decisions they make so that the public can have confidence that they are discharging their important role properly. I have, therefore, reached the clear conclusion that there needs to be a major shift in culture and process to increase the transparency of the system in a number of respects.”

News Media Association legal, policy and regulatory affairs director Sayra Tekin said: “These reforms are very welcome and necessary to restore faith in the principle of open justice, which underpins public confidence in the judicial system, to the family courts. As Sir Andrew acknowledges in his review, collaboration between the media and the courts will be vital to implement these reforms and the NMA looks forward to participating fully in these discussions."

In its submission to the review, the NMA stressed the importance of upholding the principle of open justice through allowing media to report on the courts. 

The NMA recommended practical measures such as training for courts staff, encouragement of informal discussions between the courts and the press, and the provision of advance listing information to the media.

Describing one of the reforms, Sir Andrew said: “In future, lists should be made available in advance to journalists/bloggers which identify the general nature of the proceedings, the category of hearing and the time estimate.”

The reforms include allowing journalists to report on proceedings in the family courts, working with the media and representative bodies to ensure the new system works effectively, publication of judgments with redactions to protect anonymity, and better data collection across the Family Division.

A new annual review of the Family Courts would also include an annual audit on the progress of the various initiatives that are now to be launched under the overall umbrella of “transparency.”

A consultation on the detail of the new approach will be launched.