Family court decisions to go online in pilot scheme

Decisions made by family courts over care proceedings and disputes over domestic arrangements are to be published online in a new pilot scheme.

The move is part of a drive by the Ministry of Justice to open the family courts to wider public scrutiny.

Under the pilot scheme, which started yesterday, decisions of magistrates courts in Leeds and of magistrates and county courts in Cardiff will be anonymised then published online on the website of Bailii, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute.

The scheme will extend in January to cover courts in Wolverhampton.

A Justice Ministry spokesman said: “The pilots are part of a drive to help the public and the media find out how family courts work and how decisions are reached.

“The online judgments will be anonymous to protect the identities of the families involved, and the families themselves will receive a copy of the judgment.

“During the pilots, we will consider retaining copies of judgments for children involved in the case to read when they are older.

“This information will be invaluable for people involved in family proceedings and the general public, and help them understand how decisions are reached in complex and sometimes traumatic cases.”

Justice Minister Bridget Prentice said: “Family courts are faced with some of the most difficult decisions to be made in the justice system, and the decisions that they make need to be transparent so that the public who use the courts have confidence in them.

“The courts already provide an excellent service and I believe that allowing the public to access a written copy of a judgment in a family case will help them understand how a decision was reached.

“It is important that people understand and feel connected to the justice system and this pilot will assess whether online judgments are a good way of achieving this aim.

“We will continue to protect and safeguard the identities of children and families by anonymising these written judgments.”

The pilot scheme, which is expected to run for a year, will be evaluated before a decision is made on whether it should be rolled out nationwide.

The move follows changes which came into effect in April opening the family courts to a right of media attendance, although the strict reporting restrictions remain in place.

The Ministry of Justice said a Bill being put forward by the Department for Children, Schools and Families would put a new statutory framework in place to enable the media to report the substance of family proceedings but without identifying the families and children involved.

Judgments to be published on the Bailii website under the pilot scheme will be uploaded only after they have been approved in anonymous form by the courts which make them.

Cases to be covered will include interim or final care or supervision orders made in magistrates’ courts, county courts or the High Court, when at least one of the following issues is also involved:

  • Either parent is given leave permanently to remove a child from the UK
  • The final order prohibits direct contact between a child and either or both parents
  • A final order is made in a Children Act public law case, including where contact with one or both parents continues
  • The final order has depended on contested issues of religion, culture or ethnicity
  • The court has had to decide between medical or other expert witnesses when there were significant differences of opinion
  • The court has had to decide significant human rights issues
  • The Interim Care/Supervision Order was contested

Other types of cases for which publication of a judgment will be encouraged include:

  • Contested cases where the facts, outcomes or solutions of the case would, in the discretion of the judge, be worthy of reporting publicly, such as contested residence or disputed contact issues where the outcome is unusual
  • Contested adoption applications, applications to make and revoke placement orders; cases involving dispensation with consent and contact
  • Emergency Protection Orders

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