The family court in lockdown – part 2

 

Another quick (I hope) post to detail the second hearing I attended in a Bristol family court yesterday.

12 noon: Next up is a private law case, with ex-partners appearing in person (ie, without a lawyer to represent them). Judge Wildblood tells me it will be done by telephone, using BT MeetMe. He puts his loudspeaker on for me to hear the parties. This means I don’t need to dial in as I did for a previous remote telephone hearing I attended, when I was sat in my study at home.

The woman is dialled in first. She comes through loud and clear. Her ex partner is dialled in next. He is quite muffled but just about audible for me – I imagine it’s a bit better for the judge, who is close to the speakers.

Judge Wildblood takes both of them through the usual warnings about confidentiality, no recording, are they alone. Then he informs them that a journalist is in court, ‘as the press is entitled to be’ and asks if they have anything they would like to say about that.

The woman says “I don’t have a problem with that”.

The man does have a problem. “This is my child and I’m not happy to have a journalist hearing my personal details” is about what I can make out.

Judge Wildblood explains that there are only certain lawful grounds on which he can, if he agrees with a party’s objection, exclude a member of the press. He goes through the reasons (I should know these off by heart but ALWAYS have to look them up). Here they are, bowdlerised from Adam Wolanski QC and Kate Wilson’s super document on reporting family courts produced in 2011 (Transparency Project, really sorry, I looked for them in your also super Media Guide, but couldn’t instantly locate them – so shoot me):

The media may be excluded from all or part of the proceedings if it is necessary (my emphasis) on one of three grounds specified or if justice will otherwise be impeded or prejudiced.

The three grounds are that it is necessary (my emphasis) –

  • in the interests of any child concerned in, or connected with, the proceedings;
  • for the safety or protection of a party, a witness in the proceedings, or a person connected with such a party or witness;

or

  • for the orderly conduct of the proceedings.

The judge also explains that I will not be able to report any details of the case, or anything that could lead to him or his children being identified. Given that, he asks, does he still have an issue with a journalist being in court?

The man does, saying he has had a poor experience of the media in the past. I have decided not to be any more precise about the substance of his objection in this regard.

The judge then asks me if I would like to say anything in response. I’ve decided that I want to continue to attend this hearing, and I don’t think any of what the man has said amounts to a legitimate ground for me to be excluded.

I say:

  • a simple preference that a journalist is not in court is not a valid ground on which to object to the media’s presence
  • I’m sorry he has had a bad experience of the media before, but I think it’s important that the media is able to attend private hearings to scrutinise how they operate, and particularly so in lockdown when they are being held remotely
  • I think should be allowed to stay

The man isn’t able to hear much of what I say, but the judge briefly recaps. It is evident he is still not happy, but Judge Wildblood decides there is no valid basis on which he can ask me to leave the courtroom, and continues with the hearing. It feels like a sticky start. I don’t envy parties or judges being caught in the middle of this sort of difficulty at the beginning of a hearing about your  family life. But that is where the legislation has left us.

This  is a directions hearing, where the judge helps parties to sort out what has to happen before the next one. Because both parties are litigants in person, the judge has to take them painstakingly through what will be required.

It becomes clear that the man has fundamentally misunderstood how he will have to engage in the next hearing, and the judge clarifies what is required and spells out to him the paperwork and process he will need to undertake. If this had not been done, it is absolutely certain the man would have been fatally disadvantaged in his case when he next came before a judge.

Judge Wildblood  also warns them that the chance of them being able to have a hearing in a physical court with a real live judge is going to be difficult not just in the short, but even into the medium term future. The judge asks them “can you think about whether you will be able to accept a hearing by Teams or Zoom, or whether you want to come to court?” he says. “Don’t answer now, but by the next phone hearing.”

This case has been going on for many months already. The next phone hearing is fixed for midsummer. It will clearly go on for many months more before any resolution is achieved for this separated couple and their children.

The judge finishes the call. “Because they are litigants in person, I have to go and draft the order now” he says with a wry smile.

12.45 – I spend lunchtime totally alone, perched to eat my oatcakes and wedge of Brie on top of one of the inexplicable concrete plinths randomly plonked on the plaza in front of Bristol’s Civil Justice Centre.

1.45 – I head back into court. Again the lobby is deserted and so I whizz up to the fourth floor in the lift.

To be continued….

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