The starting point for court proceedings is traditionally that they must all be open to the public because justice must be seen to be done. Exceptions were recognised in an early 20th century case as being, for example, where certain children and people with mental illness should be protected by the courts, and also matters involving sensitive commercial information, trade secrets and so on. Since then, matters of national security can also be heard without full public access.
Legislation passed in 1960 clarified that some cases that were heard in private would be subject to restrictions on publication of information. This includes most cases that are about a child’s welfare or upbringing or about someone who lacks mental capacity. These are amongst the types of cases that are held in private. Limited information about the existence of the proceedings can be published, but passing on any details about what has happened during the case may be contempt of court. Contempt of court is a civil offence that can attract a fine or imprisonment. In April 2009, the court rules were changed to allow journalists into a private family court hearing. However, they would still need to obtain specific permission from the judge to publish anything about what they had learnt.
There is also another piece of legislation that specifically relates to cases about children, which makes it a criminal offence to identify a child who is subject to applications like a care order, adoption, a contact dispute between parents etc. It is not thought that anyone has ever been prosecuted under this law but it seems an effective deterrent.
It is important to bear in mind that any of these laws can be lifted or modified by the judge in the particular case.
The principle of open justice is now supported by the Human Rights Act but there are still some exceptions, such as to protect children.
Cases heard in the higher courts are written up in the official law reports so that lawyers know what is binding precedent i.e. when the judge’s interpretation of the law applies to later cases. In these reports, the child’s identity is concealed and parties are usually referred to by initials.
Overall, therefore, most family cases in the lower courts have been unlikely to ever get reported in a way that presents an overview about how routine cases are decided.