We are all used to seeing the seemingly endless press coverage of cases affecting families – high profile divorces, battles over money and children, and the inevitable “quickie divorce” for a separating celebrity couple, but have you ever considered how the press get their stories? Did you know that, generally speaking, journalists can sit in the family courts and can report on some of what they hear? We thought we would take a brief look at how and when journalists can sit in the courtroom and what might end up in the papers.
It all changed back in 2009 when the family courts were opened up to the media in order to combat the perceived secrecy under which the courts and judges operated. As part of the process of increasing the transparency of the family justice system, and to improve public confidence in its operation, accredited members of the press can attend family hearings. This applies whether the hearing in question relates to the financial aspects of a divorce or dissolution or in relation to issues directly affecting children.
By “family hearings” we mean hearings held in private in the family court. This includes child arrangements (formerly contact and residence) hearings, care proceedings and financial remedy proceedings on divorce and dissolution. These hearings are private as they are not open to the general public to attend – you need the special dispensation of the judge or a UK Press Card.
Reporters are excluded from certain types of hearings. They cannot attend judicially-assisted conciliation hearings, being financial dispute resolution hearings (FDRs) in financial remedy cases, and first hearing dispute resolution hearings in cases concerning arrangements for children. That is because these hearings are aimed at settling cases, and proceed on a without prejudice basis. Members of the press are also excluded from hearings concerning applications for parental orders (court orders transferring legal rights from the birth mother to the applicants after a surrogacy arrangement) and hearings concerning adoption.
In addition to the general exclusions, it is possible for a judge to prevent the press from attending certain hearings, or from parts of them. Judges can exclude the press from all or part of the proceedings if it is necessary (a) to protect the interests of a child involved in the proceedings, (b) for the safety or protection of a party, a witness, or someone connected with them, or (c) for the orderly conduct of the proceedings. A judge might therefore decide to remove the media from the court room if she considers that a witness would refuse to give evidence with the media present, if the whereabouts of a vulnerable person might be revealed, or if sensitive commercial information could be made public.
Courts have shown reluctance to exclude the press. Most famously, Earl Spencer (brother of the late Princess of Wales) and his former wife tried to have the press excluded from their hearing but Sir James Munby (then Lord Justice Munby, now the President of the Family Division) refused to exclude reporters and allowed them to continue reporting the case. He said that it would be wrong to ban the press from the hearing simply because the former couple were famous – to do so would risk creating one law (of privacy) for the rich and famous, and another (freedom for the press to report) for the rest of us. However, in another case, the press were prevented from reporting on a case involving the child of famous parents as the child’s welfare demanded that there should privacy; each case turns on its own facts and the media’s obsession with celebrity can weigh particularly heavily on the children of high-profile people, so it may be that exceptions to the rule are more common amongst them.
So should you worry, if you’re coming to court on a family matter and don’t want journalists present? Well, in a normal family law case involving a normal family (if such a thing exists) who are in court to sort out arrangements for property or children, it is true that there is a slim chance that a hearing could have the added dimension of a journalist present in the courtroom. However, the chances are slim as media interest in cases that do not features high profile couples is minimal.
Further, there’s not much that they can publish, even if they do come. The rules that allow media representatives into the court do not give them a right to see any documents produced for the court, and there are strict limits on what they can report. Journalists cannot identify adults or children involved in specific cases, they cannot publish details specific to the proceedings, and generally they are limited to reporting as to the court process and the principles by which decisions are made. Breaches of the reporting restrictions amount to contempt of court, which does not tend to be something a journalist covets for her CV.
So, in essence the rules permitting journalists to be in court allow them to report on the court’s workings and reasoning, but not to expose the private lives and identities of parties they encounter there. If you have any concerns about journalists and media coverage in your case, speak to your lawyer in good time.
In the meanwhile, if you have any concerns about the press or any other aspects of family law, please get in touch with us on 01223 443333.