Fighting secrecy in the family courts

by Louise Tickle in South Woodchester, England, United Kingdom

Fighting secrecy in the family courts
We did it
On 21st November 2018 we successfully raised £1,175 with 40 supporters in 28 days

To help fund an appeal against a gagging order made by a family court judge.

by Louise Tickle in South Woodchester, England, United Kingdom

I am appealing against a reporting restriction order made in a family court hearing I attended last week. The order  prevents journalists from explaining how, thanks to poor local authority evidence and poor judicial analysis and reasoning, a child almost lost its relationship with its mother when an adoption placement order was wrongly made.

That child is now at home with its mother only thanks to her having been able to scrabble together an enormous sum of money to fund an action at the Court of Appeal. The mother had to pay for the appeal herself, because even in public family law cases, where the stakes could not be higher as children can be removed from their families for ever, the state will not fund a parent's appeal.

Now, the progression of this family's case, together with its outcome, cannot be properly reported in the detail it merits and that the public deserve, thanks to a reporting restriction order that I believe was made unlawfully.

I am enormously concerned at what transpired in court last week. It has serious consequences for transparency in family law reporting, and drastically impedes the public's right to know what is being done in its name. That's why I'm appealing to have the reporting restriction order set aside.

I'm a freelance journalist, and the risks of taking this course of action are pretty scary. Although, thanks to family barrister Sarah Phillimore of St John's Chambers in Bristol, I have secured pro bono legal advice and representation, there will be costs. Lodging an application to appeal is £528, a transcription of the hearing I'm appealing against (£140ish), and then there will be travel to hearings, possibly accommodation, and if I lose, the chance of a costs order against me. The latter could be substantial.

As the immediate past President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, said in Re J:

“There is a pressing need for more transparency, indeed for much more transparency, in the family justice system…. One [aspect] is the right of the public to know, the need for the public to be confronted with, what is being done in its name. Nowhere is this more necessary than in relation to care and adoption cases. Such cases, by definition, involve interference, intrusion by the state, by local authorities and by the court, into family life. In this context the arguments in favour of publicity – in favour of openness, public scrutiny and public accountability – are particularly compelling. The public generally, and not just the professional readers of law reports of similar publications, have a legitimate, indeed a compelling, interest in knowing how the family courts exercise their care jurisdiction.”

Making reference to the loss of trust in the family law system, in the same case he later stated:

“It is vitally important, if the administration of justice is to be promoted and public confidence in the courts maintained, that justice be administered in public – or at least in a manner which enables is workings to be properly scrutinised – so that the judges and other participants in the process remain visible and amenable to comment and criticism. This principle, as the Strasbourg court has repeatedly reiterated, is protected by both Article 6 and Article 10 of the Convention. It is a principle of particular importance in the context of care and other public law cases.”

Family court hearings are held in private, which to all intents and purposes means they are in secret. This means that very particular care needs to be taken when a judge opts to restrict journalists' right to freedom of speech as they try to explain what  happened in a case where a family was very nearly  torn apart.

I'd be immensely grateful for your support in helping me to appeal this reporting restriction order. You'll be helping me  fight for more scrutiny, accountability and transparency in family courts. If you'd like to donate, that would be fantastic.

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