Concept for - Transparency pilot - the future of family courts

The transparency pilot is one of the recommendations proposed by Rt Hon. Sir Andrew McFarlane, the President of the Family Division, to achieve better and purposeful transparency in the family justice system.

What is the transparency pilot?

Currently, family hearings are private which means that the public are not allowed to attend as they are in the criminal court. A consequence of this is that the public are unable to gain any insight into the way in which family proceedings work.

The pilot launched on 30 January 2023 in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle family courts and was set to run for 12 months, subject to independent evaluation. In November the pilot was extended to cases being heard by magistrates. As we have reached the end of the 12-month period, the second phase of the pilot has begun. This phase will see the continuation of the transparency pilot to more family courts, including Truro and to include family remedy proceedings, except for Financial Dispute Resolution hearings which will remain private.

Are courts and families bound to allow press access?

No. The court retains discretion to direct that there will be no reporting. A party to the hearing may apply to the court to request the transparency order to be changed. When deciding whether to approve the request, the court will seek to strike a balance between the family and the parties to the hearing against the purpose of the pilot. This means the court will have regard to the rights of the family and parties to a fair trial under Article 6 ECHR, the right to private family life under Article 8 and the right to freedom of expression of the press and public under Article 10.

Moreover, the court must have special consideration to certain cases. For example, cases where it is difficult to achieve anonymity for the child or where reporting of the hearing would cause prejudice to the applicant.

Who is allowed to attend a family court hearing?

Only ‘pilot reporters’ may attend and report on a family hearing. Pilot reporters are defined as ‘any duly accredited representative of a news gathering or reporting organisation or duly authorised lawyer (legal blogger) who may attend a hearing under FPR r.27.11’.

What does this mean for the future?

Since the pilot was launched Mrs Justice Lieven has confirmed that there have been no complaints about the identification of families. The pilot has only been tested in urban areas and so rural areas, such as Cornwall, are yet to be explored fully. In addition, the clear intention of Rt Hon. Sir Andrew McFarlane was to restrict the reporting to pilot reporters so expansion to other members of the public is not likely at this stage.  However, it marks a shift generally towards greater transparency and publication of family law judgments so that the public can gain a greater insight of the care taken within the family court system to decide cases and allow an informed level of public scrutiny which has not been possible in the past.

If you have any further enquiries regarding the transparency pilot, please contact our Family Team we would be happy to help.