Leading Cheshire Lawyer voices concerns over media access to family court proceedings

Year Published: 2009

New rules on media access to Family Law Courts may well cut sensational and speculative reporting of celebrity marriage rifts, but could leave “normal” families exposed to embarrassment and heartache.

The Family team at SAS Daniels, says that because of the nature of the population in the county, millionaires alongside the massively hard-up, there’s a huge swings-and-roundabouts issue on potential divorce and residence hearings – sometimes referred to as custody hearings – for local families.

“It will be down to the judge to direct the media with regard to reporting restrictions, in some cases they may be tightened, in some cases they may be relaxed depending upon the nature of the case – but journalists will be allowed to report the ‘gist’ of the case without identifying those involved,” said Head of the Family team at SAS Daniels.

“However, that leaves the door open for many inconsistencies – the idea is greater openness, but many cases involving children, for instance, may go unreported. The lack of openness in family proceedings has often been blamed for children being wrongly taken into care, for instance – so while one judge may allow potentially influential reporting of a case involving children, the next may have a near identical case but decline to lift reporting restrictions.

“For the most part, it will end speculative comment about proceedings involving celebrities and introduce more factual reporting, but normal families – without the protection of layers of media management people – may find their private lives laid out for all to see.

“We would go so far as to say that some people engaged in divorce proceedings, residence disputes – or ‘custody battles’ as they are sometimes known – or other family-related issues may decide not to go to court for fear of having their private lives splashed all over the papers – while at the other end of the scale I am anticipating some pretty vicious statements and outbursts in court, designed specifically to gain media coverage and cause maximum embarrassment and damage.

“Unless constrained by reporting restrictions, then some pretty lurid and graphic evidence that often comes hand in fist with family proceedings, and which a party may have to provide against their wishes but to prove a case, may see the light of day.

“There may actually be a benefit in high-profile, high-value or celebrity marital or family disputes, because such proceedings have in the past drawn masses of speculation, and exaggerated or extended the press coverage, but speculation could well be eliminated with the reporting of proceedings.

“Journalists will be held in contempt if they report matters which identify a child, but while they may write a story which refrains from identifying a minor, it is human nature that identities slip out. A family may not be named in a lurid story, but any and every community will quickly put two-and-two together and make the connection.

“That is the most alarming element, because whereas some pretty graphic proceedings were not previously permitted to be reported, from hereon they will.”

For more information contact the Family team.

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