Confidentiality in the Family Court
Proceedings in the Family Court are heard in private, which also means that all of the documents and details of the case are confidential. This is particularly important when the case relates to children as they will contain their names, dates of birth, addresses and even what school they go to.
As a reminder of this, most Family Court orders have a confidentiality warning on them.
The repercussions from disclosing information relating to proceeds of the family courts can be very serious and can result in a fine and / or imprisonment. The confidentiality warning is therefore included on all Orders to try and avoid accidental disclosure, as ignorance of the law is generally no defence.
Until recently, the confidentiality warning simply read:
The names of the family and the child are not to be disclosed in public without the court’s permission.
A recent review of the template and precedent libraries (i.e. the building blocks lawyers and judges use to ensure Order and other legal documents are thorough and consistent) has meant that this commonly-used confidentiality warning is now much more detailed:
Until the conclusion of the proceedings no person shall publish to the public at large or any section of the public without the court’s permission any material which is intended or likely to identify the child[ren] as being involved in these proceedings or an address or school as being that of the child[ren]. Any person who does so is guilty of an offence.
Further, during the proceedings or after they have concluded no person shall publish information related to the proceedings including accounts of what has gone on in front of the judge, documents filed in the proceedings, transcripts or notes of evidence and submissions, and transcripts and notes of judgments (including extracts, quotations, or summaries of such documents). Any person who does so may be in contempt of court.
Information related to the proceedings must not be communicated to any person other than as allowed by Rules 12.73 or 12.75 or Practice Direction 12G of the Family Procedure Rules 2010.
The new wording does not mean the law has changed in any way – it just makes it much clearer what the law actually is.
Privacy of children
The first paragraph summarises Section 97 Children Act 1989, which relates to the privacy of children in certain proceedings. This automatically applies in any cases relating to children.
Paragraph two of the new confidentiality warning summarises the law contained within Section 12 Administration of Justice Act 1960. Again, this automatically applies to any case relating to children that is heard in private.
It is important to note that posting any information on social media about the family proceedings would satisfy the definition of ‘publishing’.
The Family Procedure Rules
The Family Procedure Rules do allow for some sharing of information which would usually be prohibited under Section 97 or Section 12. This is what paragraph three of the warning refers to. For example, the rules allow for sharing of documents and information between parties in the case, their legal representatives, professional legal advisors etc. They also allow for lawyers to share documents with any experts or medical professionals that the Court has authorised instructed of (Rule 12.73). Information can also be shared where the Court gives permission or subject to any direction of the Court which is in accordance with Rule 12.75 and Practice Direction 12G.
These exceptions could be relevant to you, for example, if you have other legal proceedings and you wish to disclose information from the Family Court proceedings. It may be that an application has to be made to the Court for permission before you can disclose that information.
The rules and exceptions are complicated. It is always best to seek legal advice before disclosure of any information you have received as part of family proceedings to avoid any penalty for wrongful disclosure. In the most serious cases, this could include being sent to prison.