Confidentiality and the Media

Confidentiality and the Media

Broadly speaking, there are very few family court hearings which are open to the general public. There are a few exceptions which include the pronouncements of decrees/conditional/final order (eg of nullity or divorce), committal hearings, defended divorces and Court of Appeal and Supreme Court hearings.

The situation is slightly different however in relation to press attendance. The Family Procedure Rules now allow for the attendance, during specified family proceedings and subject to the discretion of the court, of accredited media representatives (and any other person whom the court permits to be present, but not the general public). Duly accredited representatives of news gathering and reporting organisations can attend proceedings held in private, subject to a power for the court to direct their exclusion for all or a part of the proceedings for a specified reason. Anyone entitled to be present at the hearing may request that media representatives be excluded. The media is 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; any conciliation or Financial Dispute Resolution appointments (at which parties try to negotiate a settlement with the assistance of a Judge.)

However, having the right to attend hearings does not necessarily give the media the right to report, though permission may be granted by a Judge. In some circumstances they can report, but aspects such as the detailed private financial information or identity of the parties is to remain private and or be anonymised.

The media are not allowed to identify children who may be involved in family proceedings and such proceedings must remain private.

There is limited ability to inspect documents on the court file. The Decree Absolute is a public document, although for those applications made prior to 6 April 2022 the reason (or fact) for the breakdown of the marriage is not contained within this document and thus remains private.

There has however over recent years been a drive for more transparency in the family court and there is a current a working group considering what changes should be made including in respect of what documents should be available to the media and whether judgments should be anonymised. We have seen several reported cases recently where parties and their financial details have been published.

Some parties are now electing to ‘go private’ and use the Arbitration process so as to ensure that details of their private family disputes are not laid bare in open court and reported by the media.

Arbitration provides couples with the confidence of a legally binding decision but on their own agreed timetable and with the guarantee of complete confidentiality. Fairness cannot be achieved where a concern about publicity is used as a bargaining chip.

Another related issue is confidentiality. Couples need to be careful of what they each post on social media during their divorce. Anything they post is potentially admissible in court. A breach of the confidentiality rule could amount to a contempt of court punishable by imprisonment or fine.

If any of these matters is of particular concern to you, please contact us. We can advise on the making of applications to exclude the press from your court hearing and other privacy related matters, including injunctions if someone is breaching confidentiality relating to your case or children.

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