Members of the Transparency Project have noticed that the rate at which family court judgments are sent to BAILII, and the way in which they are reported, has been inconsistent over the past two years, despite the guidance issued by the court’s President in January 2014, and his subsequent consultation in August 2014.
We are therefore pleased to report that Julie Doughty of Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics has been awarded a small grant by the Nuffield Foundation to evaluate the responses to, and effects of, judicial guidance on publishing family court judgments involving children and young people.
Accusations of ‘secret’ courts and unaccountability generate distrust, but concerns have also been raised about risks to children of more publicity from cases in which they are involved. Courts try to achieve the right balance between individual competing interests and rights, but the law is complex and confusing. Efforts at law reform over the past decade have failed. Extreme views are expressed on both sides; it may seem that the opposing arguments are irreconcilable.
In January 2014, the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, issued guidance to judges across England and Wales to make more of their judgments freely available online, but there has been no publicly available monitoring or evaluation of the operation of this system. We do not know how effective or safe it is, and whether it is having any impact on the way cases are reported in the mainstream media or on professional practice.
There are many outstanding questions about what the publication of judgments on BAILII in the past two years has actually contributed to inform public debate about the operation of the courts and the other agencies involved. In other words, how far has the President’s guidance achieved tranparency, and what can we learn about what might be done differently?
It is difficult for practitioners, involved groups and the media to engage with each other without an evidence base about what is being published. There is a risk of stalemate, or ill-informed decisions being made about future steps in achieving transparency. This research will analyse patterns in the published judgments and media coverage of the family courts. We will also be obtaining the views of key stakeholders in the family justice system.
It is anticipated that a report on the outcomes of the research will be available in late autumn 2016.