We’ve heard rumbles a couple of times in recent months, along the lines of ‘not enough legal blogging’ under the new reporting pilots in Cardiff, Carlisle and Leeds family court centres. They’ve got us thinking about how many legal blogging hours we are putting in (alongside actual jobs), and how and why they translate into into end-product or not. We’ve rounded up here a summary of the work each of us has put into legal blogging recently, so you can get a sense of it.
One of the Reporting Pilot (RP) courts is on my doorstep, the Cardiff Family Justice Centre being a few minutes’ walk from the central rail station. However, finding RP cases on Courtserve that I can fit around my day job hasn’t been straightforward. So far, during 2023 I’ve done the following as a legal blogger:
1. In January I attended a hearing (not reporting) before the Cardiff DFJ who had agreed to meet some journalists from the BBC and me a few days before the Pilot began. The hearing wasn’t reportable but the journalists found it very helpful to watch, and the judge had a long chat about the Pilot and Transparency Orders with us and members of the Court office staff afterwards. Later that day we had a meeting with some local solicitors.
2. I attended and reported on a 3-day care case in Cardiff in April – here.
3. After a fair bit of obstruction from court staff at the RCJ, my attempts to remotely join some deprivation of liberty hearings led to my attending half a day of hearings. I didn’t ask to report on these but I hope to arrange future attendance and writing up. The national DoL court is not part of the Pilot. This is discussed – here.
4. I attended an online RCJ interim hearing about private law contact in July and hope to attend the final hearing this autumn. (High Court so not RP.) i was made welcome by the judge; no lawyers raised any objections to my presence. The date and time of directions hearing held a couple of weeks ago was helpfully confirmed by one of the lawyers, who also notified the other parties’ lawyers that I planned to attend. Unfortunately, the Court did not send me the link to that hearing despite two requests. When I subsequently enquired why not, I received an automated reply from the RCJ telling emailers not to waste their time unless the matter was immediately urgent. Not sure how anyone is supposed to communicate with them on anything less.
5. More successfully, I attended and reported on a private law Finding of Fact hearing, under the Cardiff RP, in August – here.
I grabbed the chance to observe the first pilot case in England and Wales – Mr Justice Poole’s monster fact-finding investigation into whether three separate mothers had induced or fabricated illness in children who had all received treatment at Sheffield Children’s Hospital in 2020/21 (Re BR & Ors (Transparency Order: Finding of Fact Hearing)  EWFC 9). Unusually, legal bloggers were alerted alongside mainstream news media outlets by the press office. I blogged here to the extent permitted alongside Mr Justice Poole’s published judgment and transparency order. I attended again remotely in March, May and June, including for judgment hand down on 18 May. I stopped going when the time investment seemed disproportionate to the likelihood of being able to publish anything in the near future. Pilot reporters were told we’d be alerted once Mr Justice Poole is in a position to publish a judgment and I hope to report at that point.
I did some legal blogging under the pilot when it first commenced in February 2023 – I booked two days out of my diary to do so (as I’m self employed this means I don’t earn anything on those days). I took a while to find time to write up my blog posts (here’s my effort – and this one) but unlike others that wasn’t because there was anything complicated about what I saw or any delay in decision making about what I was allowed to report – it was simply pressure of work – and I got distracted by writing this blog post about some of the early reporting, some of which covered hearings I had actually attended:
Since then I’ve been trying – and failing – to find enough time to do any more legal blogging. Instead, I’ve been dealing with the day job, and some big changes in my own practice, some additional family pressures and working with two of the other trustees of The Transparency Project on updating our book about transparency (we’ve been trying to find ‘the right time’ to do this since the first edition was published in 2018). Oh, and I’ve been off doing talks and training about transparency and the pilot and legal blogging for journalists and lawyers. AND I’ve been on 4 of the 5 Transparency Implementation Group subcommittees. So I’ve been pretty busy. I WILL get onto some more legal blogging as soon as I can. But it’s a challenge!
I have attended multiple hearings over the course of a year, from mid 2022 to mid 2023, for a case before HHJ Shelton in Leeds, which culminated in permission to report and a reporting restriction order providing for anonymity. This was a long and dedicated piece of blogging, but I gave assurances that I would not blog until the case was over, and it took much longer than expected. From my point of view, the delay didn’t worry me because I wanted to report on how the court had addressed an area of law (maintenance for a disabled adult child under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973) that is not much reported, and I could not do that until I knew the outcome. However, it goes to show that blogging is not a quick thing – not only did I give up a cumulative week or more of my time in attending and preparing, but I also have to take the time to write carefully and responsibly about the case.
This was the first blogging on a financial remedies case and was not part of the pilot – I entered under the provisions for legal bloggers that have been in place for several years. I drafted the reporting restriction order by adapting the template for children pilot cases, as there was no precedent for financial remedies bloggers, and the court approved it. One of the parties welcomed my presence, and one did not. I received nothing but courtesy and consideration from the judge and court staff, and successfully persuaded the judge to publish his judgments in the case – which you can find summarised here. I will be writing about the case for the Transparency Project and preparing an article for the Financial Remedies Journal, which will be in the first issue of 2024.
I committed several months ago to attending a fact finding hearing involving disputed allegations of domestic abuse and blogging about it. So far I’ve attended 5 full days of fact finding and a directions hearing. I’m expecting to attend for a further half a day for judgment hand-down before giving time to reflection and write up. As well as reading the documents disclosed to reporters to follow hearings. So some 8 days of time committed in order to observe and blog the fact finding stage of one set of child arrangement order proceedings. On top of my full time job.
Recruitment – widening the pool
We are a pretty small group, which restricts the amount of impact that legal blogging can have. There are lots of reasons for that – there are still many structural barriers to attending and reporting – whilst it is interesting and worthwhile this work is unpaid, and can be both stressful and demanding.
We have tried hard to encourage other lawyers to try their hand at legal blogging whether for altruistic ‘open justice’ reasons or for personal professional development. Whilst we’ve had lots of interest in the idea, we have had limited success in getting new lawyers to actually attend hearings.
This post is not intended to discourage potential legal bloggers – it’s important to emphasise that we all really enjoy legal blogging, for all its frustrations. And we think that this sort of legal writing has potential to really contribute something to the mix in terms of what information is available for the public.
But we have become aware of some disappointment in the ranks above us as to how little legal blogging there has been during the pilot period. And we wanted to try and illustrate how much work goes into each post we do manage to publish, which is very much the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to the actual work of blogging, we are busy trying to run the Transparency Project, trying to engage with TIG to ensure that the reforms progress, that pilots actually work and that solutions are found to problems as they emerge (for example, we spent some time drawing up this guidance document to try and help support the pilot and to smooth the way for more reporters to attend without disrupting the main task of judges, which was endorsed by TIG), trying to develop our own practice and procedures around legal blogging as a novel phenomenon AND dealing with more enquiries about legal blogging and other matters than we can sensibly manage. There is definitely an appetite from parties to proceedings (mostly but not always parents) for reporters to attend and write about their cases, but we just don’t have the ability to drop everything or to find someone available to go to the other end of the country tomorrow.
Perhaps this blog post will read like a list of excuses, but the reality is that legal blogging will only flourish if the right conditions exist. At the moment the climate is unfavourable for both legal bloggers and journalists – some things can’t be changed, but other barriers can be removed and we need desperately to remove as many of those barriers as we can in order to meaningfully support the development of more and better reporting – from both bloggers and journalists. If anyone is under the illusion that the legal bloggers just need to try harder or that we aren’t keeping up our end of the bargain, they need to re-evaluate their approach to transparency and think about where the responsibility for breathing life into the mantra of open justice really lies.
Free image courtesy of Pixabay – Fisherman