Family courts should be more open, says senior judge making landmark recommendations

·3-min read

A "change of culture" is needed to improve confidence in family courts, the top family court judge in England and Wales has said.

Sir Andrew McFarlane says he has "grasped the nettle" by making landmark recommendations that could mean journalists can report "all that they see and hear" at family courts for the first time.

Cases dealt with in the family division, including divorce, adoption, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, currently sit in private and journalists are allowed in but they can't report the detail of what they see.

Sir Andrew, president of the Family Division, says he wants the default position to change so family courts are "open for reporting" as long as information identifying people is not reported.

He added that open justice is a fundamental right, and there is a strong public interest in more openness.

In a rare interview, Sir Andrew told Sky News that it "might be the case" that people initially feel less comfortable if journalists are in court, but said, "now is the time for that balance to change".

However, he added the need for anonymity is particularly important in a world where information can be shared quickly on social media.

Sir Andrew is making a number of proposals, including anonymised judgements being published more widely, allowing individuals involved in a case to talk to journalists and more meetings between the media and judges.

Judges will still be able to apply reporting restrictions and journalists who don't follow the rules could be in contempt of court.

Maxine went through the family courts to take over parental responsibility for her niece, she hopes greater transparency will build confidence but there is still "a very long way to go".

She says families like hers feel they are treated "like a piece of paperwork", and the courts need greater insight into the lived experience of families.

She is "very happy" Sir Andrew is "confronting the issue", but adds, "this is just one element that needs adjusting and we need to be able to nit all of these issues together".

"You trust the system, but actually it doesn't always work out that way. I have seen changes, I have seen some improvements, but I do feel there is still a long way to go with the system, a very long way to go," Maxine says.

Chair of the Media Lawyer Association John Battle, who gave evidence to the review group that informed Sir Andrew's recommendations, says this is "an important day for open justice".

He says "justice must be seen to be done" and family courts should be subject to greater scrutiny.

Mr Battle said: "The real winners here will be the public, to actually know what's going on in the family courts. There are sensitivities here, clearly there will be issues to do with identification of children and victims of domestic abuse, but that can be met, that happens in other courts."

There have been previous, unsuccessful, attempts to modernise the family courts, but Sir Andrew says they have been limited because of "the failure to grasp one or other nettle and move forward".

"What I am proposing is a much more significant change, I've grasped the nettle and my proposal is that the court should be open for reporting," he says.

If all of Sir Andrew's proposals are to be implemented they will need the backing of parliament, but he says he hopes to pilot the new rules in some courts within six months and "if all is well" the recommendations could be implemented across the country in around a year.

Justice Minister, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar QC, said: "We want to create a system that is as transparent as possible while maintaining important safeguards for cases involving children.

"Family court judges do vitally important work and the government will work closely with the judiciary to deliver on this review and improve access to, and reporting of, the family courts."

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