Myths about family justice remain, stubbornly, unbusted. Misunderstandings persist. But now there's something you can do about it. This article explains how.
The myths and misunderstandings about family justice have continued despite the fact that, since 2009, 'duly accredited representatives of news gathering and reporting organisations' (journalists) have been allowed to attend family court hearings conducted in private (subject to reporting restrictions of which they are, or should be, aware). The press were given access on the basis they would act as the "eyes and ears" of the public. But all too often (with some sterling exceptions), their reporting of what happens in individual cases is highly selective or so sensationalised as to be seriously misleading.
Part of the problem is the woeful lack of public legal education about family justice. That's why we set up the Transparency Project. We publish explainers on our blog about individual cases, and have produced a series of guidance notes to de-mythologise topics such as Common Law Marriage, and to help litigants understand what happens when experts get involved in cases or issues around domestic abuse crop up. We also organise workshops and events to spread the knowledge and spur debate. We know that misunderstandings about the legal system breed frustration, mistrust and a lack of confidence in the justice system generally, which is deleterious to the rule of law. The problem is acute in the field of family justice.
The Legal Bloggers pilot
We successfully lobbied for a change to the Family Procedure Rules to enable lawyers to attend private family court hearings in the same way as journalists, resulting in a pilot scheme that commenced in October 2018. The advantage of lawyers attending under the scheme is that they may well detect issues in a case that a journalist might not spot, they are likely to be better able to follow and accurately explain the proceedings, and they can be trusted to be aware of the likely scope of reporting restrictions. The pilot scheme established by practice direction which runs (currently) until 30 June 2020.
Now we're looking for lawyers who might be interested in participating in the pilot.
The relevant practice direction is PD36J. https://www.justice.gov.uk/courts/procedure-rules/family/practice_directions/practice-direction-36j-pilot-scheme-transparency-attendance-at-hearings-in-private This provides that a "duly authorised lawyer" can attend court "for journalistic, research or public legal educational purposes". Duly authorized lawyers fall into three categories :
Non practising lawyers working for a Higher Education Institution
Non practising lawyers working for a registered educational charity whose details have been placed on a list with the President's office. (The Transparency Project is such a charity.)
Participants need to take certain documentations with them to court. This includes:
completed FP301 'Notice of Attendance of duly authorized lawyer' form (one for each hearing)
practising certificate or written confirmation of attendance as a non practising lawyer under cover of an HEI or educational charity
A lawyer who attends under PD36J cannot have any other connection to the case, must confirm that they are attending for journalistic, public legal education or research purposes and must offer an undertaking to stick to reporting restrictions. You can find more detailed information about the pilot on the Transparency Project website: http://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/legalbloggers/
New recruits welcome
The success of the scheme depends on participation by bloggers. We've now sent a number of legal bloggers to hearings around the country and they have found it rewarding and challenging in equal measure! So far there have been no objections to their attendance, and all visits have resulted in a blog post, even though reporting restrictions limit what can be published. Those who have attended report that it is somewhat daunting, as one finds oneself adopting an unfamiliar role and position in court, and there is a certain amount of paperwork to deal with. One gets questioning glances and perhaps more scrutiny than a journalist would get in the same position. But while it has given those attending lots to think about and required them to be responsive to the circumstances on the ground, it has also proved a valuable learning experience.
If you are a qualified member of the Bar you can attend a private family hearing under the pilot scheme. If you are considering this and would like some guidance or support before doing so, please get in touch with the Transparency Project or check out the resources on our legal bloggers page. The Transparency Project is offering to host blog posts arising from pilot attendances (subject of course to the usual legal issues), but you can equally well publish on your own or your chambers blog. All it takes is some spare time, curiosity, and a desire to advance the cause of public legal knowledge.
Transparency Project http://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/