The Family Court Transparency Implementation Group (TIG) has recommended the creation of an “Anonymisation Unit” which will support family court judges needing to anonymise judgments for publication, in its first progress report.

The initiative follows a disastrous string of errors by Family Court President Andrew McFarlane, leading on one occasion to the unintended publication of graphic material shared in a child protection hearing.

Following Researching Reform’s inquiry to the President’s office about the error, it became clear that McFarlane had not put the document through an appropriate review process or confirmed the publication with any of the parties, lawyers assisting the parties or the judge who had submitted the file for publication.

On a separate occasion, which has not been disclosed until now, Researching Reform had to contact the President’s Office after finding the name of a child in a judgment which had not been properly redacted. The office pulled the judgment from every website which had uploaded it, and amended the document. We then asked the office if they could send out a second email alerting subscribers to the document’s publication once it had been edited and re-uploaded. A notification was never issued.

The publication of the graphic transcript occurred less than one month after McFarlane said journalists and bloggers should have greater access to family court hearings and court documents in a report on transparency in family proceedings published on 29th October, 2021. In a statement on the judiciary’s website, he said there needed to be  “a major shift in culture and process to increase the transparency”. He added that the report’s aim was to balance two issues: developing public confidence in the Family Justice system while maintaining the anonymity of families and children inside the system.

The Family Court Transparency Implementation Group’s first report offers several more recommendations and updates.

The group confirmed that it would be piloting a new reporting scheme in three courts — due to be named in October — which will enable reporters and legal bloggers to attend and report on proceedings normally conducted in private in the family courts, while also ensuring the confidentiality of the children and parties involved.

The group set out its data collection strategy to gain insights into families attending the courts, which included six questions to guide the exercise:

  1. What happens to a family before they come to court?
  2. Who comes to court?
  3. What are their experiences of court?
  4. How is the family court operating?
  5. What decisions are being made about children and families?
  6. What are the immediate and ultimate outcomes of these decisions?

The group looked at how to manage the press during its meeting, going so far as to suggest that the Family Court could and should “ensure that any reporting of Family Court proceedings is reliable and well informed.” Journalists have their own set of ethical and legal guidance they must follow, and are unlikely to pay much, if any, attention to the President trying to influence reporting in the family courts.

The team are aiming to write up the research and proposals connected to the report’s actions in November.

The full report can be accessed here.