The president of the family courts told the House of Commons Justice Committee that balancing transparency with confidentiality to create a framework for journalists reporting on family cases would be “really difficult”, in an evidence session held on Tuesday.

Andrew McFarlane, who is responsible for the running of the family courts as president was giving evidence to the committee’s “Open justice: court reporting in the digital age” inquiry.

During the session McFarlane also told MPs, “There must be a way of allowing openness so that people can see what we do, understand what we do, how we do it, why we make the decisions and yet maintain the anonymity of the individuals involved, but that is the tricky bit: to achieve that confidentiality whilst being open.”

The committee also heard evidence from John Battle, chair of the Media Lawyers Association and head of legal and compliance at ITN, and Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research at the Legal Education Foundation.

All tiers of the Family Court were opened in April 2009 to accredited members of the media. Judges can restrict attendance, or access to certain information on child welfare grounds or for the safety of parties to the cases. Parties can also ask the court to restrict access.

Concerns about the way the Family Court runs and handles cases have grown in recent years. These concerns are largely due to the Court’s ongoing reluctance to acknowledge and address serious legal and cultural problems inside the system. As a result, media scrutiny is now seen by many child welfare advocates as the only way to bring the court’s failures to light and in so doing bring about much needed change.

Following pressure from the public, journalists and court reform advocates, McFarlane launched a transparency working group to look at ways of enabling more in-depth coverage of family court cases.

A report published by the group on 29 October, 2021 was initially hailed by journalists as a positive step forward in making family law cases more accessible. However in reality the proposals in the report offer very little room for journalistic scrutiny of these cases. The group also appears to be being used a vehicle by the president to defend the system’s haphazard, unprofessional and often dangerous working processes rather than allowing proper scrutiny of what is a government-run body.

Minutes of a meeting held by the group published on 5 January, 2022 included a section in which the president also asked members not to engage in live tweeting during meetings and discouraged any discussion about the meetings with non-members.

Speaking to the committee this week, McFarlane added, “I am in the easy seat at the moment, having got to the big ideas – how we do it is really tricky and that is why I have got this transparency implementation group up and running, but I don’t pretend it is easy at all.”

The president’s group currently has 26 members of which only one is a journalist.

You can watch the evidence sessions on Parliament TV here.

Additional links: