Credit: Cardiff Civil Justice Centre (above) by Bencherlite sourced via Wikicommons

A new pilot scheme grants journalists new powers to report from three UK family courts.

Family courts settle legal disputes concerning child custody and the breakdown of relationships and determine whether local governments should intervene when a child is at risk of harm. Reporting restrictions typically apply to preserve the anonymity of children and families, meaning journalists have long feared contempt of court by covering the details.

Three courts in the UK - Carlisle, Cardiff and Leeds - are trialling a new reporting pilot scheme where judges can make a 'transparency order' setting out exactly what journalists can and cannot report.

It follows a review in October last year, led by Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the courts of England and Wales. He said that accredited media should be able to report details within family courts, so long as cases are still subject to strict rules and the anonymity of families and children is maintained.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and experienced freelance court reporter Louise Tickle released a set of resources to help the media, lawyers and family members navigate the new rules.

Family courts are difficult for court reporters to cover beyond the general information. Speaking to sources and reporting certain details can lead to identifying the individuals because anyone connecting the dots could figure out who the family are (known as jigsaw identification). Few reporters feel confident enough to challenge anonymity rulings. But that can lead to important stories going unpublished.

"We at the Bureau came up against these kinds of obstacles when we were attempting to investigate the stories of women who had been abused by serving police officers," Emily Wilson, editor of Bureau Local, TBIJ's local network, told via email.

"Initial legal advice about one particular woman's situation was that her involvement in family court meant that the risk of contempt was too high for us to publish any details of her story.

"Family court cases are often of the highest public interest - they cover issues of child protection, the power of the state to remove children from their parents, or the placement of children in secure accommodation. This pilot scheme could mean that more of these stories are brought to light and people can both understand how decisions are made but also debate those decisions and whether we're doing the right thing for some of our most vulnerable families."

The reporting pilot only applies to journalists carrying press cards from the UK Press Card Authority. If a transparency order is given, it means that the media can safely report:

  • The local authority/authorities involved in the proceedings
  • The director and assistant director of children's services within the local authority (but usually not the social workers working directly with the family, including the team manager, unless the court so orders)
  • Senior personnel at Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) (but usually not the guardian appointed for the child)
  • Any NHS Trust
  • Court-appointed experts (but not treating clinicians or medical professionals)
  • Legal representatives and judges
  • Anyone else named in a published judgment

Importantly, it also permits families to speak to the media and share details if they want to. Journalists can also quote family members anonymously.

Finally, journalists have new access to certain documents which were previously difficult to obtain. So long as anonymity is maintained, journalists may quote from:

  • Documents drafted by advocates (or litigants if a party is self-representing): i.e. case outlines, skeleton arguments, summaries, position statements, threshold documents and chronologies
  • Any indices from the court bundle
  • Any suitably anonymised orders within the case

It only applies to family cases with a transparency order, about children heard in private, and in the three pilot areas. It does not yet apply to magistrates courts hearing family cases in those areas, nor does it apply to adoption cases or financial remedy cases.

"We hope our website will be useful as a place to go for clear information and advice for reporters who are interested in these stories but aren't familiar with the family court process," says Wilson.

"We will keep it updated, and we have an email address where reporters can get in touch for specific advice if they have questions or are encountering obstacles to reporting in these areas."

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