Today marks the coming into force of new legislation which will allow the media to attend private family court hearings. The new rules apply to all directions hearings and final hearings that were previously held in private, including matters relating to divorce, financial matters, and children, including contact and residence disputes. The main exceptions are hearings that are conducted "for the purpose of judicially assisted conciliation or negotiation", in other words the First Appointment and Financial Dispute Resolution hearings. The press are however entitled to be present at the parts of those particular hearings where directions are given by the judge.
Although on the face of it the new rules appear to mean that the media can attend and subsequently report on all hearings to which they are allowed access, this is not in fact the case. They do not have a right to see private documents and they do not have an automatic right to report the details that they hear. Reporting must be of a general nature and must not include specific details, otherwise the media responsible will run the risk of being in contempt of court.
The media may only be excluded from attending a particular hearing where the court takes the view that it is in the interests of a relevant child to do so, or where the safety of a witness or party would be compromised by allowing the media to attend. In addition, the media may be excluded to prevent the proceedings being brought into disrepute or if it is in the interests of justice to do so. For the media to be excluded, the court may make a ruling of its own volition or a party must make an application to the court.
The rules have been brought in to open up the family court system and to improve public confidence in it. Opinion on the changes has so far been mixed, with some groups saying that they do not go far enough, and others saying that they constitute an invasion of the parties' privacy at what is a very difficult and often traumatic time in any event. It is however hoped that the potential for the media to be present will deter parties from resorting to court proceedings to resolve their disputes, and will encourage them to explore alternative routes such as mediation and collaborative law to do so.
If you would like any further information about the new rules, or about alternative dispute resolution, please feel free to contact one of our family team on 0113 222 3241.
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