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15 September 2023
Family court matters

Sara Pye, Deputy Chair of our family court committee, updates on the committee's efforts to ensure that family magistrates receive the support they need when dealing with distressing cases.

The text reads: member blog, Sara Pye. It is accompanied by Sara's photo.

Many of us will have felt a well of sadness when the news of the tragic death of Finley Boden hit headlines earlier this year. This case is sadly not unique. As family magistrates, we are exposed to cases that can be difficult to process given the trauma and hardship the children and families have endured.

It is rare that these cases make their way into the media. The family court has traditionally been closed to both the public and reporters. It is even more rare for the role of magistrates in these cases to attract media attention. The less complex or controversial cases that we hear as magistrates, while still involving hardship for all involved, tend not to attract high profile coverage.

Perhaps because it is so rare, there is a lack of clear protocols, services or pastoral support for magistrates who are named in media coverage. Case law recently confirmed that magistrates must expect to be named where cases do attract media attention. It is part of the principle of ‘open justice’, which is a fundamental part of our justice system.

Yet the possibility of being named isn’t made sufficiently clear to us when we apply or train for our roles in the family magistracy. Where it is mentioned in training and onboarding of new magistrates, the full implications and possible risks are not made clear. I for one didn’t think too much about it at the time. It is also one thing to be named in a local paper. It is quite another to be named in the national press.

It is particularly troubling that we don’t have clear guidance on who to turn to if we are named in the media. There is no protocol in place for our leadership magistrates or judges about how they should support members of the family panel who deal with particularly traumatic, controversial or high-profile cases.

This must change.

The Magistrates’ Association (MA) has written to the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, to alert him to the need for improvement. Support for family magistrates is now an urgent issue, since magistrates’ courts will soon be included in new reporting pilots that aim to create more transparency in the family court. Our colleagues in Leeds, Carlisle and Cardiff may soon find themselves being named in reports on family proceedings.

We urged the president to ensure that support for family magistrates is clear, straightforward and easily accessible.

In his response, Sir Andrew acknowledged that the current signposting of support is inadequate. The family court committee are pleased that Sir Andrew has committed to developing a protocol so that magistrates are fully supported as we pursue greater openness and the inherent vulnerability that comes with being named in media reports. This protocol will include ensuring that family panel chairs, bench chairs and the HM Courts and Tribunals Service legal teams understand their key role in signposting magistrates to welfare support such as the Judicial Helpline and the Law Care helpline (available to all magistrates). At the MA we know that a problem shared is a problem halved. We have our own dedicated member support line, where you can talk to other experienced MA members who can provide a supportive ear and direct you to find further help.

We will keep working to make sure that, when there are distressing times for family magistrates, we can support one another and ensure that everyone can access the support they need.