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Regional editors urged to let reporters cover Family Court cases

Louise TickleA campaigning journalist has urged regional editors to give their reporters time to cover Family Court cases after a scheme aimed at increasing access to such hearings was extended.

Louise Tickle, who has campaigned for years to increase coverage of family courts, made the plea after the extension of a scheme allowing journalists to report on cases subject to maintaining the anonymity of those involved.

The 12-month pilot scheme was started in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle last year.

As reported last week, hearings at Liverpool, Manchester, West Yorkshire, Kingston-upon-Hull, Nottingham, Stoke, Derby, Birmingham, the Central Family Court, East London, West London, Dorset, Truro, Luton, Guildford and Milton Keynes are now subject to the same trial.

Writing about the extension, Louise, pictured, told The Guardian: “While the extension of the pilot across the country is welcome, as far as scrutiny is concerned – and despite some excellent reporting – the media has barely made a start.

“There is no point being allowed to report if journalists don’t go to family courts and publish stories on what they see.

“But there is equally no point pretending that regional – or even national – news outlets are awash with the kind of resources that would allow an editor to casually send a journalist to attend, say, a two-week care case involving allegations of non-accidental injury to a baby.

“The truth is that family cases are typically complex, multi-day hearings, stretching out over months. Occasionally you can publish something useful after a day in court, but several days is more typical.

“The longest case I’ve followed lasted three years. This is not a trip to the local magistrates court to write 600 words for the next day’s paper.

“When someone is criminally prosecuted, we rightly demand that a justice system that can deprive someone of their liberty is open to scrutiny, and is accountable. The possible consequences of a family court case – sometimes losing your children for ever – are seen by many as a fate far worse than imprisonment.

“So the public interest in journalists reporting on family justice – and investigating when things go wrong – is compelling and immense.

“Editors need to give journalists the time to report on these cases, which typically involve poverty, homelessness, violence, abuse and addiction afflicting often the most vulnerable people in society.

“The biggest transformation I hope to see as a result of the pilot’s expansion is a culture change towards journalists coming to court, based on senior judges’ clear position that transparency is a positive force.

“This needs to filter down, and fast, to all state authorities – councils, NHS trusts, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and experts, along with their lawyers. Barring one exceptionally poor recent experience, most family judges welcome the media.

“Power exercised in secret is dangerous. We all behave better when someone is watching. And the plight of parents and children who end up in family courts and how the system deals with them needs to be seen – and shouted about.”