At the end of last year, the Government published the Children, Schools and Families Bill, which contains provisions concerning media presence and reporting in the family courts. The Bill will be enacted in two stages. In the first instance, it will give increased access to the media and increase to a limited extent the information that can be published about proceedings in family cases. However, representatives of the media will have to be accredited and it seems they will only be able to report on a case if they were actually present in court when it was heard.
The provisions in the first stage as to reporting requirements are complex but appear to be more robust than the current regime. Broadly, the Bill allows publication of anything which is not ‘sensitive personal information relating to the proceedings’. It provides a definition of this type of information, which includes information given by children and information that relates to health conditions, whether physical, psychiatric or psychological.
The key word used in the Bill is ‘information’ rather than evidence, which means that information which may become evidence in a case is included. There are exceptions, however. The court may allow publication of sensitive personal information if it is in the public interest to do so or where this would avoid injustice to someone involved in the case. However, an application to publish will still have to be made to the court, which, in determining whether to allow the application, will consider the safety or welfare of those involved in the case.
Once implemented, the measures in the first stage of the Bill will be subject to a review by the Lord Chancellor. His findings will then be disclosed to Parliament. The second set of measures will only be implemented after a delay of at least 18 months after the first stage comes into force. It is this second stage of measures that will have the widest impact on media reporting as it would remove the restrictions imposed by the first stage with regard to ‘sensitive personal information’. This, in effect, would mean that, in the absence of a court order, the media could report on any matter in the family courts. However, parties and witnesses in family cases will be granted lifelong anonymity.