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Family court transparency plans fall short: new research from Cardiff University

Judges struggle to find time to publish judgments safely

New research from Cardiff University's School of Law and Politics – Transparency through publication of family court judgments – suggests that guidance given to judges to routinely publish their judgments is not being consistently followed, leaving the public with a patchy understanding of the family justice system in England and Wales.

Issued in 2014, the guidance was intended to address perceptions, especially in the media, of 'secrecy' and 'justice behind closed doors' when important decisions are made about children in family courts. These claims arise from the way that court rules ensure most family cases are held in private, to protect children and other vulnerable parties, and are subject to reporting restrictions preventing such parties being identified.

The guidance requires judges to send fully anonymised versions of their judgments in certain types of case to BAILII, a freely accessible legal research website. The intention was to enable both the press and the public to have a better understanding of the family justice system, by making it more transparent.

However, following concerns expressed about poor anonymisation and some risks of jigsaw identification, and also observations that relatively few cases seemed to be appearing on BAILII, an evaluation of the effects of the guidance was undertaken by Cardiff University's School of Law and Politics, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Analysing 837 judgments that were published in the first two years following the guidance, the research found that only 27 judges and 12 courts sent in more than ten cases each to BAILII during this period, revealing significant local variations in following the guidance. As a result, the media and the public are able to read more about judicial and social work decision making in certain parts of England and Wales than others.

Dr Julie Doughty of Cardiff University's School of Law and Politics, who led the research, said:

"The judgments now published provide more information about the role of the family courts than was available prior to the guidance, but there are inconsistences in the way courts have responded which can present a confusing and not necessarily representative picture of the system as a whole."

To read the full report, click here. To access, the 2014 guidance, click here.

23/3/17