As a new era in family law begins, with Sir Andrew McFarlane being officially sworn in as president of the family division yesterday, a pilot allowing legal bloggers to report on private family proceedings has got off to a successful start.
The nine-month pilot, revealed by the Gazette in August, began yesterday and allows lawyers who hold a valid practising certificate, or work for a higher education institution or educational charity, to attend family proceedings in the family court and family division of the High Court with a view to reporting the proceedings.
The Transparency Project, a charity which aims to make family law and family courts clearer, has long campaigned for bloggers to be permitted into family court hearings. Its chair, family barrister and legal blogger Lucy Reed, attended a hearing on the first day.
Reed told the Gazette that she took her practising certificate and passport as ID, and was required to fill in a form akin to giving an undertaking to the court. She sat at the back of the court and asked permission to report on some of what was said during the hearing. Neither the judge nor the parties objected. However, Reed pointed out that the hearing was not contentious.
The practice direction setting up the pilot scheme states that lawyers will be expected to bring sufficient identification to enable court staff to verify that they are 'authorised' lawyers, such as a current practising certificate and photo ID. A signed written statement must confirm that the lawyer's attendance is for journalistic, research or public legal educational purposes. The lawyer cannot have a personal interest in the proceedings and 'is not attending in the capacity of agent or instructed lawyer of any client'.
Journalists have been allowed to attend private cases since 2009. However, Reed said they may be relucant to do so because they have little information about what the case is about beforehand and do not know whether they will have enough for an article. As well as having the technical ability to explain a case, Reed said that legal bloggers, unlike journalists, are not constrained by tight word counts, which can potentially lead to inaccuracies.
The ministry says it is 'vital that justice is seen to be done' and the pilot will improve understanding of the courts and family justice system.