Opening the family courts to media reporting could lead to divorcing couples using the threat of publicity as a blackmail weapon against each other, lawyers have warned.
The threat of publicity about hearings which are normally held in private and not reported has led some London firms to draw up standard applications for journalists to be banned from reporting cases, Frances Gibb, legal correspondent, reported in The Times today.
New rules which come into force on Monday allow for journalists to have the right to attend family court proceedings.
The Times quoted Mark Harper, family partner at law firm Withers, as describing the reforms as effectively being a blackmailer’s charter.
“Divorcing spouses who believe that they have sensitive information in their possession will use it to extort the maximum financial settlement, on the threat – express or implied – that otherwise all may be revealed to the media in the court,” it reported him as saying.
The new rules were “rushed through” and would not lead to the promised transparency, and he predicted much litigation about the media’s right to attend courts.
Other lawyers said disclosure of a people’s affairs would not be in the public interest and there would be considerable dispute about the press’s right to attend family courts.
But the reforms were welcomed by James Stewart, a partner with family law firm Manches, who said that while some people would be against their cases being reported, there would in fact be few applications to exclude journalists.
Barrister Joanna Grandfield, a partner at Mills and Reeve, said: “There is a real tension between increasing public confidence in the family law system and respecting the privacy of those who find themselves, often though no fault of their own, caught up within it.
“While the new rules are a step in the right direction, I am not at all convinced that they will achieve their aim since the tight restrictions on reporting the specifics of a case, requirement for anonymisation and permission to report proceedings, place a straitjacket on the press from the outset”.
The new rules might also lead to more cases being settled out of court, she said, adding: “Notwithstanding the restrictions that will be in place, I suspect that the new rules will act as a deterrent to those who are not prepared to risk their family troubles entering the public domain, even in anonymised form.
“As a result, there will be those who are prepared to pay a premium to their spouse to ensure that this does not occur.”
But she also suggested that the cases which had a direct impact on the lives of the general public would not be regarded as newsworthy enough to receive coverage.
“I suspect that the likelihood is that reports will largely be restricted to the ‘glamour divorces’ of the rich and famous, which, if I am right, may mean that the new rules will have a minimal effect on increasing understanding of and confidence in the system.”
Christopher Butler, head of family at law firm Speechly Bircham’s private client practice, said transparency was a laudable aim the Government needed to concentrate on making the courts work properly.
“The wider public may, if cases are accurately reported, have more confidence in the family justice system,” he said.
“But for those actually embroiled in it, how much confidence will they get from experiencing delays, poor facilities, lost court papers, wrongly timetabled hearings and the like? In our view this is what the Government needs to address.
“For all of these reasons, avoiding court will become a much more attractive option. This latest change to the way family courts function is likely to give mediation and collaborative law, both tried and tested ways of resolving disputes outside of the court process, a further boost. Alternative Dispute Resolution could therefore become the norm rather than the exception.”