The winds of change are perhaps already blowing, with at least one family court case already operating under the open justice pilot due to start from 30 January for most children cases in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle. What can be reported of this case, at this stage, is severely limited by reporting restrictions – due to ongoing criminal investigations.
What we can tell you is that this is a complex fact-finding hearing in the Leeds Family Court concerning three families and allegations of fabricated or induced illness. The hearing is likely to run for some three months, and involves some 16 parties including intervenors and extensive evidence – from medical professionals to experts, and the families themselves.
We attended as legal bloggers on Tuesday for day 1 of the hearing, alongside representatives of the mainstream media, having been notified of the case with the blessing of the judge. Mr Justice Poole decided to adopt the pilot from the outset of the hearing, and gave a short judgment in respect of his transparency decision making so far, which will be published in anonymised form. We’ll link to that when we see it published. [UPDATE 26.01.23]
The President’s decision to trial a shift in the starting point for reporters – from not being allowed to report hearings or tell the stories of the families involved, without applying for permission – to being usually allowed to report, subject to strict standard anonymity safeguards and particular restrictions required on a case by case basis – is a seismic change for the notoriously private (or secret) family courts (depending on your point of view). Many are watching to see how it plays out and what difference it makes – from one perspective or another.
In this case the permission to report will not kick in until the outcome of the criminal investigations. For the simple reason that anything else might risk prejudicing any criminal trial.
So for now, we asked for a remote link to attend the hearing in Leeds under the (newish) observing remote hearings guidance, sought a variation of the Transparency Order to report to the extent of this short blog, asked to see some basic documents to enable us to follow the hearing, and looked to clarify some legal blogging procedural specifics.
It was a legal blogging breath of fresh air to have the information that the hearing was taking place shared with us alongside the mainstream media. Also that the hard-pressed family court system managed to respond to and accommodate our request for a remote link to observe on this occasion. This is the stuff of putting the flesh on the bones of transparency and remains a real challenge for all concerned. (More about that perhaps when we write up the government’s response to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee’s Open Justice Report on court reporting in the digital age, that has just landed.)
Joining remotely worked well. It wasn’t possible to see the court room but it was easy to see the Judge and to hear everyone. On the odd occasions where sound was lost through microphone issues, it was easy to point this out and it was quickly resolved. Mr Justice Poole had set aside court time to consider the Transparency Order carefully and hear from the numerous legal representatives of the parties as well as the press and broadcasters present.
What was more tricky was making much sense (particularly remotely) of who was who. Nor was it easy to understand the factual matrix informing the proposed restrictions for (deferred) reporting following the outcome of the criminal investigations so as to comment meaningfully, particularly since there was no oral opening, and we did not have access to the opening documents and position statements until day two. There were few name labels/ descriptors on the CVP remote platform, or introductions from (the many) Counsel each making brief submissions on the Transparency Order. (It will be interesting to see if the practice of brief oral opening summaries from Counsel that has developed in the Court of Protection after observers were first admitted under pilot, is eventually also adopted in family pilot courts, with potential benefits for reporters and lay clients alike).
Although we do not have the resources to attend throughout this lengthy hearing, we do hope to return to it and to report further if at all possible.
The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew MacFarlane published Guidance on the Reporting Pilot, including a template Transparency Order on 29 November 2022 at the judiciary website. (We understand an updated version incorporating minor amendments will be re-posted shortly ahead of pilot start on Monday 30 January).
Families, professionals and journalists etc can share pilot feedback or queries at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Transparency Project are running an online information session for those interested in legal blogging on 2 February at 5.30pm. NB You need to be a lawyer to attend family court hearings as a ‘legal blogger’. Lawyers should email email@example.com to book.
UPDATE 26 January 2023 – See also a newly published guide at the Transparency Project on What to do if a reporter attends your hearing.
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Feature Pic by Khamkéo Vilaysing at Unsplash – Thanks