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Blog post: Transparency is welcome but it won’t be achieved without more resources

Chair of the MA's Family Court Committee, Tracy Sortwell, welcomes announcement on transparency but calls for more resources to make it a reality


11 November 2021

Increasing public confidence in the courts through greater transparency is to be welcomed. For magistrates, volunteers who give up their time for training and sitting as lay judges to serve their local communities, it is essential that those communities are able to trust that open and accessible justice is occurring in the Family Court. The increased ability of legal bloggers and journalists to report on what they see and hear in family courts will ensure more openness. 

Greater transparency than under the present system will provide multiple benefits. It is legitimate for the public to scrutinise the operation of the family court which has a profound impact on the daily lives of the many thousands of people who have their cases heard by family magistrates and judges each year. As the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, notes in his review, greater openness will also “enhance the ability for the system and those who work within it to learn and improve.”  

It is also hoped that increased transparency will encourage a better public understanding of the operation of the Family Court. Given that the family court operates on behalf of society this is a worthy goal in and of itself. However, it will also ensure that, in the future, those who bring their cases to the Family Court will have a richer understanding of how the court works and how decisions are made.  

The President has taken a measured and sensible approach to balancing the need for greater openness and the equally pressing need to protect those who appear in the Family Court. Magistrates hear cases involving children and it is vital that the anonymity of those children is protected. It is welcome then that it will continue to be at the discretion of the court whether to prevent a case from being reported by the media or bloggers in order to ensure the continued privacy of children and young people. Welcome too is the president’s emphasis that the scope and implications of transparency will need to be explained to children. Whilst in the long term transparency will benefit children how go through it and the Family Court as a whole, it is likely that in the shorter term children in particular are not likely to see those benefits. It is essential that, in implementing these proposals, that the wider picture is explained to children in an understandable way.  

In addition to media reporting, increased publication of judgements will also ensure that there can be greater and better-informed scrutiny of family proceedings. However, it is well known that that judges in the Family Court are already under strain. So too are magistrates.  

As the President acknowledges, attempts to increase publication of judgments have failed in the past. The pressures on the family court system are great and the towering backlog of cases waiting to be heard makes it difficult to justify devotion of time to anonymisation and publication of judgments. These proposals must therefore be accompanied by increased resources in the family court if a real increase in transparency is to be seen. There is a stark need to increase the recruitment of magistrates and to do so in a way which encourages greater diversity to ensure that magistrates deciding these profoundly important matters reflect the communities in which they sit. The Magistrates' Association will gladly lend its expertise to further consideration of the publication of magistrate’s judgments. 

For the full text of the Transparency review click here.

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