Family courts: Privacy and Publicity

The family courts deal with difficult and sensitive cases. When minor children or vulnerable adults are involved, it is vital that privacy is respected. However, there is a balance to be struck between respecting privacy and ensuring that the legal system is not seen as operating in secret, something which could undermine public trust in the system.

Who can come into court?

Family court proceedings usually take place in private, which means that the public are not permitted to be present in the family court. However, since 2009, accredited media representatives and, more recently, legal bloggers have been allowed to attend most family court hearings.

In practice, very few of the many thousands of family law cases each week are attended by reporters or reported on.

What can be reported?

There are very strict limits on what reporters can publish. There are automatic restrictions on reporting details of cases involving children.

Divorcing couples, without minor children can ask for restrictions to be applied to their cases in exceptional circumstances.

Important decisions of the family courts that develop the law or apply it in ways that are significant for the legal profession, are published online and in law reports.

These “judgments” are often anonymised to remove identifying information such as names, addresses, schools, commercially sensitive specifics of a family business or certain medical details.

The drive for more openness is particularly important in cases involving the removal of children from their parents’ care by the local authorities. As these are some of the gravest decisions a court can make, campaigners have long argued that they should be subject to some degree of public scrutiny in the interests of justice.

What does this mean for families?

If you are involved in a court case, the chances are that reporters will not attend. However, if you have a high profile you are more likely to attract the attention of the press, particularly when it comes to money. There have been a number of examples since 2009 of famous couples trying, usually unsuccessfully, to prevent publication of the judge’s decision in their case.

If there are minor children involved, only in truly exceptional circumstances will information that could lead to the identification of a child be made public, for example if the court is trying to locate a missing child and publishing their details would help.

How to keep things private

Some parts of the divorce court process are not open to the press.

Reporters are not allowed to attend a Financial Dispute Resolution Appointment, a court-led negotiation at which couples are encouraged to settle their case with guidance from a judge.

Settling at this point in the process ensures privacy but the spouse that most requires the privacy may end up paying a little more for it.

Keeping out of court altogether is often the surest way of keeping your divorce private. Various forms of non-court dispute resolution are available to separating families, including a “Private Finacial Dispute Resolution Appointment FDR”, “Early Neutral Evaluation” or Arbitration.

Our in-house counsel, Abigail Bennett, offers private FDRs and early neutral evaluations at which a process similar to an in-court negotiation hearing takes place in a private venue according to a timetable agreed by the parties.

Publicity and reputation management

If publicity is likely to be a factor in your case, we will work closely with our media law team to ensure that your privacy is protected to the greatest extent possible by developing a comprehensive reputation management strategy. 

JMW’s specialist Media and Reputation Management Team work very closely with our Family Law Team in order to ensure that Clients receive expert advice, support and representation.  

Our Media Law experts are experienced in handling intrusive media coverage, addressing social media problems and protecting our Clients’ privacy.  We handle injunction cases and have litigated in disputes up to and including the Supreme Court.

We have extensive experience of acting in relation to:

  • Issues arising from media reporting of divorce and family cases
  • Harassment by former partners
  • False accusations made to third parties by former partners
  • Surveillance by former partners
  • Celebrity interview and wedding deals with the media
  • Disputes between former partners concerning the use of children’s images in social media
  • Media reports and speculation about private relationships

JMW’s Media and Reputation Management Team is headed by Nick McAleenan. He is ranked as a “Leading Individual” in media law by Legal 500 2020. Nick is vastly experienced and was listed in The Lawyer Magazine’s “Hot 100” lawyers 2019.

We will introduce you to JMW’s Media and Reputation Management team as appropriate.  However, if you have any concerns regarding intrusions into your privacy or threats to your reputation, please feel free to discuss them with us in confidence.

Talk to us

If you require further information or advice from our team of expert family lawyers, please contact a member of our team or call us on +44 (0) 203 002 5833  Alternatively you can complete our online enquiry form and we will be in touch as soon as possible.

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