'No press interest in family court website trial'

National and regional media and journalists ignored a pilot scheme to publish decisions in family cases dealt with by magistrates courts and county courts, according to a Ministry of Justice report.

The scheme, under which anonymised judgments in family cases were published on the website of Bailii (the British and Irish Legal Information Institute) was part of an investigation into ways of bringing greater transparency to how the family justice system operates.

But a new report from the Ministry of Justice claimed it found no “evidence of press interest”.

The scheme was launched as part of the new Children Schools and Families Act 2010.

The previous Labour government claimed the inclusion of the media was intended to increase transparency in the family justice system – although some media observers and lawyers claimed that in reality it would have the opposite effect.

The Coalition Government announced last October that no decision would be taken on the commencement of the Act until the outcome of the Family Justice Review, which has yet to report, while in July this year the Commons Justice Select Committee called for the Ministry to abandon the reforms completely and start afresh.

The report on the pilot scheme said: “The views expressed on the pilot by those working in the pilot courts and comments from the wider public on the Bailii website indicate support for greater transparency and better public understanding of the family justice system.

“However, the pilot approach to achieving this gave rise to concern particularly among lawyers, the judiciary and court staff about the protection of the privacy of the families involved.”

It added: “There were also practical concerns that the vast amount of material on the website would be difficult to navigate even by those familiar with Bailii.

“Whilst we did not expect the parties to cases to be greatly interested in the direct use of the website, no evidence was found of any impact of the scheme on the families concerned. Nor was any evidence of press interest found.”

The pilot scheme, which lasted for 12 months, was conducted at Cardiff and Wolverhampton County and Magistrates’ Courts, and Leeds Magistrates’ Court.

Cardiff and Leeds started the pilot in November 2009 and Wolverhampton in January 2010. A total of 165 cases went through the scheme – leading to publication on the Bailii website of more than 1,000 pages of material.

The report said anonymised judgments on the website were accessed 56,887 times between January 2010 and March 2011.

Bailii arranged a survey for website users and only 77 of whom replied, the report said.

The largest groups of users were professionals – 33 to were lawyers and judges, and 28 were from the social welfare field.

“In addition there were four members of the press, a documentary film maker, a probation officer and 10 members of the public, some of whom who appeared have involvement in a case,” the report said.

It added: “Only one member of the press found the site useful in describing both sides of the case.”

The report, which pointed out that preparing anonymised judgments involved considerable time and cost, suggested that it might not be necessary or desirable to publish all family proceedings judgments.

“The provision of written judgments in all county court cases might be considered separately from the question of the publication of anonymised judgments in all cases,” it said.

“It is a matter for debate whether there is benefit in a national roll-out which would include each and every case falling within the criteria, as tested in the pilot, or whether the cases to be published might be sampled in some way.

“Options could include allowing judicial discretion to publish only those cases worthy of noting publicly, or where either the parties or the media have specifically requested publication.

“This could reduce the burden on the judiciary, legal advisers and court staff caused by the anonymisation process.

“There may be a stronger case for arguing that, for all other cases falling within the criteria, unredacted judgments or reasons only might be prepared to be given to the parties and stored on the local authority case file for later life access.”

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