Media reporting of the family courts: a social worker’s reflections

Journalists can now report on proceedings in almost half of family courts under the transparency pilot. Social worker Polly Baynes examines the implications for practitioners

Jigsaw with piece missing revealing the word 'Transparency'
Photo: syaheir/Adobe Stock

By Polly Baynes

Since January 2024, the press have been allowed into nearly half of family courts in England and Wales to report on proceedings, following a year-long pilot in three areas. What are the implications for social workers?

The need to limit press reporting to protect vulnerable children from the disclosure of sensitive personal information has long been recognised.

Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 made reporting on family proceedings involving children a contempt of court.

Tension between confidentiality and transparency

But this was always in tension with the need for justice to be ‘seen to be done’.

Closed courts became harder to justify as society generally became more open and in the face of a series of inquiries into the deaths of children known to social workers and the contested removals of large numbers of children in Cleveland and Orkney in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to concerns about sexual abuse.

When New Labour introduced a target to increase the number of adoptions in 2000, this prompted unfounded claims that individual social workers were paid to ‘steal children’ for adoption with the support of corrupt and secret courts. This myth continues to be widely promoted on social media and has real-world consequences, increasing fear and hostility towards social workers, making it hard to build trusting relationships with families.

Social work fears

For many social workers, attending court is one of the most stressful parts aspects of their job even without the prospect of media criticism. Some remember how those working with Baby Peter Connolly were pilloried after the 2008 trial of those responsible for his  death.

The prospect of having the media cover cases prompted worries not just about insensitive reporting of family difficulties but also the potential disclosure of personal information about professionals. This was not unreasonable: social workers experience high rates of verbal and physical abuse, negative press reporting and online naming and shaming, including death threats and the sharing of home addresses and details of children’s schools.

Earlier attempts to open up courts

In 2009, journalists were allowed into family courts but not permitted to publish reports without the judge’s permission. In effect, the courts remained closed.

Families who felt that had been treated unfairly were not allowed to talk to the press – and could be in contempt of court if they shared the reports written about them with anyone.

The Daily Mail spearheaded a campaign for transparency in the family courts, fuelled by steadily increasing levels of child removal.

The paper claimed success in 2013, following the announcement of rules, introduced the next year, that made a presumption that judges would grant media requests to publish family court judgments – with public authorities and expert witnesses named – in most cases.

Family courts ‘still perceived to be closed’

However, in 2021, following a review of transparency arrangements, the president of the family division of the High Court, Sir Andrew McFarlane, found that the relevant practice guidance on publishing judgments was not being followed in many cases.

More generally, he concluded that a major shift in culture was needed to increase transparency, warning: “The family justice system is suffering from serious reputational damage because it is, or is perceived to be, happening behind closed doors.”

The transparency pilot

As a result, in January 2023, journalists were allowed to report contemporaneously on family proceedings, subject to careful anonymisation, in a pilot in three court areas, Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle.

This was dependent on the judge making a transparency order, setting out what could and could not be reported, which was not always granted.

In a piece for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), former lead family judge for Cardiff, Jonathan Furness KC said there had been some teething troubles.

Judges were concerned about the time arguments about transparency would take in their busy court lists, while there were also issues with listings, making it hard for journalists to identify particular hearings they wished to attend. Resources were not always available for journalists to attend lengthy and complex cases.

Court work ‘recognised as important and child focused’

However, he concluded that the pilot had achieved its purpose: “There has been some excellent reporting showing the family court working well and for the benefit of families and children.

“Our work is being recognised as important and child and family focused. We deservedly receive better press than we previously did.”

A separate TBIJ article quoted the lead judge for pilot, Mrs Justice Lieven, as offering a similarly positive verdict.

“We went into this with nervousness, and it’s gone better than we feared,” she said. “Anonymity has been preserved – I have not had any complaints about jigsaw identification [a person being identified from different pieces of information].”

Reporting that can help readers understand decisions

As a practitioner, I was encouraged to read articles like that in the Yorkshire Post on 30 June 2023 (behind paywall), concerning proceedings for a baby for whom there was a plan for adoption.

Polly Rippon’s report from Leeds family court made clear that the judge was not prepared to endorse a plan for adoption without clear evidence that the child concerned would be at risk of significant harm if he went home. The social worker’s efforts to work with the parents during the pregnancy are acknowledged and compassion is shown for the mother – who is losing the care of her fifth child.

The judge concludes that there is no alternative to adoption for this baby, who was born prematurely with a heart condition and requires complex care. Stories like this are potentially powerful in challenging the idea that courts ‘rubber stamp’ adoption plans without proper scrutiny.

The family’s confidentiality is protected but enough detail is provided to allow readers to understand the reasons for the decision and the care that was taken to ensure fairness.

Extension of pilot

Reporting is now permitted of public and private law in the three original pilot courts. In 16 others, report of public law has been permitted since January 2024, with private law cases being added later.

In these areas, transparency is now the default position, providing this is safe and not disruptive. Family members are free to talk to reporters and their words can be quoted for the first time.

Key documents, such as threshold documents and chronologies, will be disclosed to journalists in full and can be quoted providing they are anonymised.

Judges, legal representatives and court experts can be named, as can the local authority and its senior managers.

Safeguards for families and professionals

There are a number of protective measures in place:

  • Only recognised journalists – those who carry a UK press card – and authorised legal bloggers are allowed into the court.
  • Family names and identifying details must be anonymised.
  • Individual social workers, team managers and guardians cannot be identified unless this is ordered by the court.

Encouraging signs for social workers

As a social worker with years of experience in court work, I faced this change with trepidation, mindful of the death threats I had received and the impact of hostile reporting following child death inquiries.

At the same time, I recognised the need for justice to be seen to be done and the ways in which the secrecy of the system exacerbated families’ fears about justice. It remains to be seen how this change will affect social workers and their relationships with families over the longer term but there are encouraging signs.

Sensitive reporting has the potential to reveal the complexity of the work and can highlight what is going well as well as empowering families with accurate information and providing accountability in line with social work values.

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4 Responses to Media reporting of the family courts: a social worker’s reflections

  1. Jim Greer May 20, 2024 at 10:57 am #

    This is a really positive development which can only improve public perceptions of the profession. Family Court proceedings are a matter of legitimate public interest.

  2. Anna Kornas May 22, 2024 at 8:19 am #

    Still no transparency, there will still be closed court and selective reporting.
    At least there is some acknowledgement of wrongdoing however, are wrongly removed children and parents going to receive reunification and justice?
    Will contact & custody still be awarded to the reported abuser due to inadequate investigation procedures and protection of the authorities & courts. (& perpetrator)
    How are investigation procedures throughout the authorities/courts going to improve?
    Who is really being protected?
    Still vitally important unanswered questions.
    Who will be accountable??

  3. Daniel Murray May 22, 2024 at 8:59 am #

    Yes this is a positive step,but what about the request for disclosure and transparency when Cafcass hold and doesn’t provide vital information of evidence to the none residents parent?also some court proceedings a red label is placed on the court door PRIVATE. I been in court over 7 years and still being upressed by the system of injustice and requested a journalist to attend my hearings and been refused. So if this system is inplaced in Manchester and a parent believes they have not been treated fairly and seeks to request a journalist to attend to report on there individual case,why should it be refused when the current law allows it.This again contradicts the entire mechanism.

  4. Herb May 24, 2024 at 3:09 am #

    Family court is a adversial system which destroys many families and there are cases where childrens lives are also lost.
    Family Courts need to be replaced.

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