Longstanding practices in the Family Court that restrict reporting of cases and protect litigants’ anonymity may be coming to an end, as Kate Pooler of Edwards Family Law discusses.
Mr Justice Mostyn’s Campaign for Greater Transparency
Senior judges in the Financial Remedy Court (FRC) are not in agreement as to how to strike the right balance between transparency and privacy in matters such as who can attend hearings, what documents should be provided to reporters, and retaining parties’ anonymity. Mr Justice Mostyn has made waves by unequivocally asserting in a series of judgments since late 2021 that the FRC has been getting the law wrong for decades. Mostyn J’s position is that, whilst Family Court proceedings sit in “private” (as opposed to “open” court, like the majority of court divisions), that does not in and of itself require reporting restrictions or that the parties be anonymised when the judgment is published on a public database. He has made statements such as:
- “Had a member of the press or a legal blogger attended I consider that they could have reported everything that they heard during the proceedings” (Aylward-Davies v Chesterman );
- “The correct question is not: ‘Why is it in the public interest that the parties should be named?’ but rather: ‘Why is it in the public interest that the parties should be anonymous?’” (Xanthopoulos v Rakshina ); and
- “if very rich businessmen are in court fighting at vast expense with their ex-spouses over millions, then the public has the right to know who they are and what they are fighting about. The judgment should therefore name names. Redactions can be made of commercially sensitive information, but…the redactions should never obscure the way the court has decided the case” (Gallagher v Gallagher (No. 1) (Reporting Restrictions) ).
“Is it fair that one party’s poor behaviour could result in the other party’s identification?”
You might notice something that the above three cases have in common: you can read the names of the parties. That is because Mostyn J did not anonymise his judgments. The vast majority of financial remedy judgments heard by judges other than Mostyn J, however, continue to be anonymised. The lead FRC judge, Mr Justice Peel, has been the most prolific publisher of judgments since November 2021 and all have been anonymised. Since parties have no control over which judge hears their case, they face a bit of a lottery as to the publication protections they might be afforded.
The TIG Report
TIG has just reported its findings on all issues of transparency as they relate to the FRC. Acknowledging Mostyn J’s judgments, it states “it is not for this report to set out what we consider the law to be on any particular, controversial, point. That must be a matter for the Court of Appeal. We acknowledge that there are different approaches to certain issues by different judges at High Court level and that this is far from ideal…it will be for others to decide whether the conclusions we reach should be implemented”.
The TIG report’s most critical recommendations can be summarised as follows:
Attendance at hearings
Cases should continue to be heard in private – ie, the only individuals permitted to attend are the parties, their representatives, and accredited journalists. Efforts should be made to better inform practitioners and judges on what to do if a reporter attends their hearing.
Reporters attending hearings currently cannot see any case documents without specific permission of the Court, meaning that the hearing is often impossible for them to follow. The report recommends that, when a reporter attends, a standard Reporting Order be made by the judge which:
- permits reporting of what the reporter witnesses, subject to anonymisation and protection against intrusive and personal identification; and
- entitles the reporter to see the parties’ position statements, together with the “ES1” (a brief case summary document) – reporters cannot publish any information that would breach the Reporting Order, even if it appears in a provided document.
Anonymity in published judgments
This is at the centre of Mostyn J’s standpoint and is arguably the most controversial issue. The report considers that “the default position should be one of anonymity”, but “there will be cases in which the presumption of anonymity will not be upheld”, which is a matter for the judge to decide on a case-by-case basis. Examples might include “situations of poor behaviour, either within the proceedings (by way of litigation conduct) or outside the proceedings in appropriate cases”, or where the public interest in identification outweighs the privacy justifications. The report also strongly encourages judges at all levels, not just High Court, to publish their judgments, to reset the imbalanced focus on “big money” cases heard by the High Court.
The TIG report’s recommendations, if implemented, would undoubtedly provide greater clarity as to what parties to FRC proceedings can expect from a transparency and privacy perspective. The idea, however, that a party’s conduct could lead to a loss of their anonymity leaves much room for judicial discretion. What sort of behaviour outside of proceedings should this cover, what is the threshold for “poor behaviour”, and is it fair that one party’s poor behaviour could result in the other party’s identification? The question of transparency is by no means answered and we eagerly await a Court of Appeal case on the topic. In the meanwhile we will report back on the extent to which the TIG report recommendations are implemented by the Family Division.