In July 2011, the Family Courts in conjunction with the Judicial College and the Society of Editors published a “Guide to Media Access and Reporting“, written by barristers, Adam Wolanski and Kate Wilson with a Preface by Sir Nicholas Wall and Bob Satchwell.

The guide seeks to draw together a number of interlocking and overlapping statutes, rules and common law principles which affect the ability of the media to inform the public about family proceedings.    It is intended for the use of journalists, judges and practitioners.

The Guide deals with issues under the following subject headings:

  • Introduction: Principles
  • Sources of Law
  • Access to Court Hearings – An Overview
  • Media Access to Court Documents – General Considerations
  • Reporting the Courts – Overview
  • Reporting the Courts – Judgments
  • Orders Contra Mundum
  • Types of Case
  • Appeals
  • Disclosure from Family Proceedings

The Guide begins with the principle of open justice but then points out that

 “Public access to hearings of family matters in the Family Proceedings Court, County Court and High Court (Family Division) is restricted (see below) whereas the default position in the High Court (QBD Administrative Court), Court of Appeal and Supreme Court is for hearings to be held in open court. As a matter of practice most family proceedings are heard in private”  [12]

Rule .27.10 of the Family Proceedings Rules 2010 provides for hearings under those rules to be in private unless any enactment provides otherwise or the court directs otherwise and that members of the public are not permitted to attend hearings held “in private”.  However, duly accredited members of the media are entitled to attend hearings of family proceedings held in private subject to the power to exclude them on specified grounds (r.27.11(2)(f)).

The media may be excluded from all or part of the proceedings if it is necessary on one of the three grounds specified in r.27.11(3)(a) or justice will otherwise be impeded or prejudiced (r.27.11(3)(b)). The three grounds are that it is necessary (a) in the interests of any child concerned in, or connected with, the proceedings; (b) for the safety or protection of a party, a witness in the proceedings, or a person connected with such a party or witness; or (c) for the orderly conduct of the proceedings. [19]

The guide goes on to point out that the media may be excluded entirely from proceedings held “in camera” – that is in secret – but such hearings can only be held if a test of necessity is satisfied [28].

The Guide is a very useful overview of the complex set of statutory provisions and rules which govern this area of practice and will be of great practical value to those who have to advise in relation to media issues which arise in the “family context”.  As the UK Human Rights Blog points out, future editions would benefit from a contents page and an executive summary.

We endorse the view of the RPC Privacy Blog in recommending this as

“a thorough and up-to-date review of this convoluted area of the law.  It is in the area of family proceedings that perhaps the greatest tension arises between open justice and parties’ legitimate expectations of personal privacy”.

The Guide does, however, illustrate the complexity of the rules which govern media access and court reporting.   Both journalists and judges need assistance in navigating these difficult waters.