News reports have been discussing the current regulations concerning media reports of divorcing couples’ financial hearings. The high-profile separation of pop singers Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton has brought this issue to a head. The former couple applied jointly for an injunction to exclude the press from their family court hearing.
Mr Justice Mostyn in hearing this application stated that ‘to say that the law about the ability of the press to report ancillary relief proceedings which they are allowed to observe is a mess would be a serious understatement’. Mr Justice Mostyn felt that maintaining an injunction allowing Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton to be named but no-one else was unrealistic given the press comment on the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage. It was decided that only the children of the parties should not be named. Mr Justice Mostyn’s ruling on the application for an injunction has relaxed the injunction and left the door open for the judge who heard the case to provide further details in his final judgment.
The current rules on transparency in the Family Court
In 2009, legislation introduced new rules on media attendance in cases before a family court. Previously, the media had been able to attend family court cases only in family proceedings courts; the provisions in force since 2009 now allow for media attendance in the county courts and High Court and these rules now apply to the Family Court. The press are however not allowed to attend any placement or adoption proceedings, proceedings relating to a parental order under section 54 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 or any conciliation or financial dispute resolution appointments (where the judge is helping the parties on a ‘without prejudice’ basis to reach an agreement in their dispute). The press are also not allowed to identify children who are involved in family proceedings and Children Act proceedings must remain private.
The provisions concerning privacy in the family courts have been criticised by family groups, Members of Parliament and the media. Fathers’ rights groups have claimed that the hearing of child contact and residence cases in private has added to the perception of court bias against fathers.
The House of Commons Library has recently published a briefing paper focusing on the issue of confidentiality and openness in the Family Court. The paper discusses reforms in this area, in particular the Government’s support to increasing the openness of the Family Court and the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, issuing a consultation in August 2014 seeking views on ways to improve transparency in the family courts, including the possibility of public access.
The Conservative Government has yet to make any policy changes in respect of transparency in the Family Court; it may be that they are awaiting the outcome of the President’s consultation. However, its position on this matter has been outlined as ‘supporting steps to increase openness whilst remaining mindful of the rights to privacy of those involved in such personal proceedings’. What is clear from recent debate is that the government must intervene and decide just how transparent the family law courts should be to address the current ‘mess’ Mr Justice Mostyn refers to.