This month once again having a day to spare I headed off for a bit more legal blogging at East London Family Court. This time I was able to observe a case which remains as yet unresolved, yet the omens seem good.

The hearing I attended was covered by the Reporting Pilot so I was able to get a Transparency Order permitting me to report the case without first having to apply for permission. But any reporting will be subject to stringent conditions as to anonymity to protect the child. (For more on this, see our guidance note.)

In many ways the case is unremarkable. It is typical of the day to day diet of family courts up and down the land. So I’m not reporting it for any sensational news or shocking revelations. Rather, it is to open a little window of transparency into a process most people can’t see because it’s conducted in private.

The court room is a formal place, and everyone is on their best behaviour. People take turns to speak, usually when invited to by the judge, Her Honour Judge Purkiss, who makes sure everyone has their say, whether via their barrister or solicitor, or in person. I was told to sit at the back and my presence was explained at the beginning of the hearing. Everyone was given an opportunity to object. I got some mildly curious looks but no one did.

This was just a short case management hearing taking about an hour. Another hearing has been set for the end of the month, and a further hearing in August, but in the meantime the court made a number of orders, preserving the status quo, and arranging for reports and various other matters to be done to progress the case.

The case involves the residence and care of an 11-year-old boy. The local authority, Waltham Forest, have been granted an interim care order which they have applied to continue. They will need to file a care plan. But the mother is applying for the boy to be returned to her care. Her ability to care for him will need to be assessed – there have been concerns raised by neighbours, the boy’s school, and perhaps others, including concerns about her mental health.

One of the issues for discussion is whether the mother’s parenting assessment should be conducted by someone from the local authority team or an independent person. The mother says she welcomes a home visit from the local authority but wants the assessment done by an independent social worker. The court decides to order assessments of both parents by an in-house assessor, and to adjourn the mother’s application for independent assessment, with permission to restore it within seven days of receipt of the assessments already directed.

There will also need to be a psychiatric assessment of the mother and and a psychological assessment of the father. The father, who is represented, will have an opportunity to  serve a statement in response to the mother’s application for the child to be returned to her care.

The child is currently in the care of the maternal aunt, who is here in person. Judge Purkiss suggests that it would make sense for the aunt to be joined to the proceedings as an intervenor.  This will enable her to to have access to the court bundle, and be separately represented in the main hearing. None of the other parties objects and an order to this effect is duly made.

There is also a court-appointed guardian who represents the child’s interests. They too will need to file an initial analysis before the main hearing.

At the end of the hearing I was given a Transparency Order, allowing me to write about the case. And that was that.

After leaving court I took some photos around Canary Wharf, where the court is located, including this one (above) of a sculpture by a fountain.


I thought the decision by the court of its own motion to join the maternal aunt as an intervenor (an additional party in the case) was quite interesting, but in other respects the case was a fairly routine matter – though obviously significant and far from routine for the parties.

The important thing is that I was able to go in and watch it, not as a professional news hound in search of copy, but as a volunteer observer, in support of public legal education. The public can’t just go in and watch these sort of cases, as they can watch civil or criminal cases before judges or magistrates in other courts. This lack of openness has, in the past, led to accusation of secrecy and worse; and that’s why there is such a strong movement towards more transparency. Hence the current Reporting Pilot, which is supposed to make it easier not just to attend private family court hearings (we can do that already) but to report them without having to make a special application to do so.

We fully expect the Reporting Pilot to be extended, both to more courts around the country, and also to include magistrates as well as more senior judges. We find most parties appreciate the fact that there is an observer in court. A famous judge once described court reporters as “watchdogs of justice”. It’s a way of making sure that, as another famous judge said, “justice is not only done, but is seen to be done”. Seen by someone, at any rate, even if not the public at large.

Before you go….

We have a small favour to ask!

The Transparency Project is a registered charity in England and Wales run by volunteers who mostly also have full-time jobs. We’re working to secure extra funding so that we can keep making family justice clearer for all who use the court and work in it. We’d be really grateful if you were able to help us by making a small one-off (or regular!) donation through our Just Giving page