Family matters are incredibly private subject, so how would you feel if the media had the ability to publish private family legal proceedings to the public? Calls to make these proceedings transparent could make this so.

There has been a recent advertising campaign by Lloyds bank, with the strap line “The M word: It’s good to talk about money”, playing on the fact that talking about money and our personal finances is a taboo in the UK and considered to be a very private matter.

It is true, we do not like to talk about our money. So when there is a requirement within divorce proceedings to provide full details of your financial circumstances there is inevitably an uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability. Usually this very private information is only shared with solicitors, your ex-spouse and the Court but there is an added concern that the media could become privy to these details and report them widely. So the question arises, “can my divorce case be reported by the press?” As may be expected, there is no simple answer to this question.

Sir Andrew McFarlane, the president of the Family Division of the High Court, has recently made a call for family courts to be as open and transparent as possible and increase news reporting of cases within family proceedings, including divorce. As part of this call for change, Sir Andrew has published guidance for journalists to challenge restrictions to reporting, making the process easier and less time consuming. He has also opened a consultation on relaxing reporting restrictions for journalists and legal bloggers, arguing that it is important and necessary for the family justice system to be open and transparent, while also acknowledging the need to protect confidential information where appropriate. This consultation is open until the end of June, with a hope that a report and recommendations will be published in a years’ time.

It is difficult to argue against the principle of having a more transparent justice system, as this is one of the pillars on which our justice system is built. On the other hand, if it is your private financial details that could be disclosed it becomes a different matter and the arguments of private business should be held in private seem to carry more weight. Should the need for openness allowing for independent scrutiny of courts outweigh the right for privacy?

The current rules are based on guidance that was published in 2009 which allows accredited members of the press to attend the majority of hearings that take place in the family court. It is possible to object to the press attending hearings in circumstances where protection of a party, witness or child is required or if justice would otherwise be impeded.

In reality, excluding the press completely is difficult but the court can impose restrictions on what can be reported. The Judge will consider the competing Human Rights of a “right to a private and family life” against those of a “right of freedom of expression”. The decision of the Judge as to the information that can be reported will rest on the specific facts of the case.

The media does require express permission from the court to publish information that was disclosed to court under compulsion, such as personal financial details within divorce proceedings. However, there are cases where the Court has given permission for information to be published in cases that have attracted media interest including numerous divorces involving celebrities and other individuals with a high net worth.

It appears as though the president of the Family Division will continue his push for a more open and transparent family court, encouraging journalists and legal bloggers to hold the court accountable by making it easier for them to report on family matters. Whilst we await the guidance that should be published next year, the advice is that if you do not want the risk of the media reporting on your case, every attempt should be made to resolve family disputes by agreement, without going to court. Processes such as mediation or collaborative law offer the advantage of being completely private, avoiding the risk of details being published.

If you do need to speak to a member of the team regarding any of the issues raised in this article, or any other family law matter please feel free to contact: Chris Burns, who is the head of our family law department; Sophie Arrowsmith a member of our team in the Leeds office or Richard Buckley who is a member of the team in the Sheffield office, or Andrew Smith who is a Partner in our York office.

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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