Court privacy ruling on divorce
Divorcing couples have been given reassurance that their private financial affairs will remain confidential even when the media attend court, following a recent judgment from the family court.
In the anonymised case A v A , following financial remedy proceedings, a district judge prohibited disclosure of any information in respect of the proceedings except for: the matters permitted in respect of the divorce suit; the fact and date of the application and hearing; and the fact and date of the settlement (but not the details of the settlement).
The judge made clear that the starting point is the principle of open justice, following the Labour government’s initiative to open up the family courts in order to further public understanding. He said: ‘Nothing should be done to discourage fair and accurate reports of court proceedings.’
The judge rejected the husband’s application to have the media excluded from the hearings, but followed the guidance given 10 years ago by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss in the Court of Appeal in Clibbery a Allan  1 FLR 565.
That provided that an implied undertaking as to confidentiality extended to virtually every piece of information disclosed in financial remedy applications.
Notwithstanding the new transparency measures, the district judge reasserted the importance of the undertaking and added that the previous guidance also included evidence given by witnesses. In the new case, the parties settled the dispute minutes before the judgment was due to be given in March.
The judge said: ‘The ability of the media to attend the hearing stems from the principle of open justice, which promotes the rule of law and public confidence in the legal system.’
But he added: ‘Their presence alone does not mean that confidential information is brought into the public domain.’
The judge accepted that the media had an interest in reporting the case, but said the facts that they sought to report would not further the public’s understanding of the family justice system.
The judge concluded: ‘I find in considering this aspect that the balance between the right of the media to freedom of expression and the right of the husband (and others) to respect for private and family life, weighed together with the open justice principle enshrined in Article 6 [of the European convention on human rights] and the implied undertaking as to confidentiality falls firmly in favour of privacy being maintained.’
James Copson, a partner at London firm Withers, said the decision provided useful clarification following moves to introduce greater transparency into the family courts, which some had feared would be a ‘blackmailer’s charter’.
He said: ‘It’s a step forward as far as the development of the law is concerned. The media will be allowed to attend financial resolution hearings, but there will be restrictions on what they can report, not least on the information disclosed as a result of a party’s obligation to provide full and frank disclosure under compulsion from the court.’
He said the decision was a ‘useful clarification and good balancing decision’ between the right of the media to freedom of expression and the rights of the parties to privacy.
Copson added: ‘It is important that the public see how the system operates and how decisions are made, even if they do not get all the details.’