We are very excited.

After months of liaison with the Family Procedure Rules Committee our proposal to permit legal bloggers into family court hearings is going to be piloted. The pilot will launch on 1 October and run for 9 months until 30 June 2019, so it’s no change until October. The pilot will allow practising lawyers, academic lawyers and those under the umbrella of an an educational charity (like us). We’re keeners, so we’ve already submitted our details to the President of the Family Division so that we are on the ‘approved list’ of educational charities who can send lawyers to court (four weeks notice is required but this only needs to be done once).

The scheme will work a little bit like a blend between the old Court of Protection pilot and the accredited media representatives provisions in the existing Family Procedure Rules. Lawyers will need to provide proof of their eligibility under the scheme on the day of the hearing (as the press do by showing their Press card in the Family Court) and will need to complete a form which amounts to an undertaking not to breach privacy rules (under the Court of Protection Pilot members of the public attending hearings were asked to sign to show they understood they must not identify P) and a confirmation that the lawyer is not acting as a lawyer with an interest in the case, but is attending for public legal educational, journalistic or research purposes. The forms and draft practice direction (not in force yet) are downloadable at the end of this document.

Why are we excited?

We think that this pilot scheme has potential to help make clearer how family courts work, and to tell the public about the sorts of decisions family courts are making every day up and down the country, rather than just those cases involving a celebrity, a scandal or titillating fact. That of course is what The Transparency Project is all about – and in fact the original seed idea for the project was about lawyers blogging about family court cases.

Although this pilot does not in any way diminish the privacy protections given to children and families under family court rules, we think that there will be some material that can legitimately be reported and that will help the public to get a better understanding of what goes on in private hearings. Just as occurs occasionally when journalists attend court, some relaxation of the usual strict restrictions on reporting might be permitted on application, but that would need to be on a case by case basis. The roles of journalists in holding the justice system to account is crucial, but we think that lawyers can provide a greater technical understanding and a different perspective, and can select what to write about without being constrained by the commercial considerations that drive the highly selective reporting of family justice by the mainstream media.

What next?

We will be working over the coming months to ensure that we are able to fully support and participate in the pilot and to report back on how it is going in due course, through our Family Court Reporting Watch project. The timing of the new pilot dovetails brilliantly with the recruitment of our new Project Co-ordinator, like our Family Court Reporting Watch kindly funded by the Legal Education Foundation, and we have lots of ideas about how we might make the best of this pilot scheme to advance the Reporting Watch project and possibly to work in collaboration with journalists. The proposal to the Family Procedure Rules Committee emerged out of the Family Court Reporting Watch, as we found that we were unable to access hearings alongside journalists that we would otherwise have wished to report on, and where we felt that we would most likely have covered the case quite differently from the ‘angle’ taken by the mainstream media. Whilst we understood that opening up private hearings to the public presented risks of unauthorised disclosure of very private information that were unlikely to be found acceptable, we successfully argued that because no lawyer wants to find themselves in contempt of court, lawyers (in particular practising lawyers) could be trusted to report responsibly and within the legal restrictions imposed upon by the law or any court order.

It will be interesting to see as the pilot begins how often it is used and whether it will have any impact on the behaviour of journalists (what they choose to cover and how they do so), or upon the cries of ‘secret courts’ that we so often hear levelled against the family justice system.

Lawyers who would like to blog for us under the pilot should get in touch via info@transparencyproject.org.uk with details of their qualifications and areas of interest / knowledge.

We wrote about our own experiences of attending the Court of Protection Pilot (eg see here), and it would be great if any lawyers who attend court under these rules during the pilot period could feed back to us about their experiences too.

The paperwork 

The Practice Direction (PD 36J) (not in force) defines legal bloggers and sets out the types of identification that will be required.

Form FP301 is “notice of attendance of duly authorised lawyer”. This form is intended to provide the written statement required in Paragraph 4A.3 of the Pilot Practice Direction. Any legal blogger eligible within the Practice Direction wishing to attend court (including one who is under an educational charity) will need to ensure they have sufficient copies of the form for each hearing they wish to observe. This form must be handed into the court for each case and will be retained on the court file of each case they are present in the courtroom for.

If a lawyer is part of an educational charity, prior to attending court the educational charity must seek authorisation from the President of the Family Division to do so. Form FP300 is the application form to be used by educational charities to make this initial application. The application must be made at least four weeks in advance of the first hearing from which the charity intends to send persons to court to give the President’s office sufficient time to process the application and notify the charity and HMCTS of the outcome of the application. The President’s office will maintain a list of all charities authorised to attend court for this purpose.

All lawyers will need to provide picture identification. Practising lawyers will need to produce their practising certificate. Lawyers under an institution or charity will need official confirmation from the organisation in question that they are a lawyer working under that organisation.

Feature pic : secret by Steve Rotman on Flickr (creative commons licence – thanks!)