10 January 2022

Privacy in family law proceedings

By Maria Endall, Family Solicitor, Hayes + Storr.

It is important for anyone involved in family law proceedings, whether in relation to marriage breakdown (except defended divorces, which are held in open court), child arrangements or domestic abuse to understand that such proceedings are held in private and that the parties’ involvement in these proceedings must be kept confidential to protect the privacy of the parties and any children involved.

Court orders in respect of child arrangements come with a very clear warning about the confidentiality of proceedings, that is: that the parties involved are not to be publicly disclosed without the permission of the court.

Publicly disclosing the names of the parties or any papers from family proceedings to people or organisations outside those proceedings could amount to contempt of court. The consequences of which are extremely serious and include being fined, having your assets seized or even imprisonment for up to two years.

The question of whether a disgruntled party could use their right to freedom of expression to expose details of the proceedings has recently been considered by the High Court. In this case the father posted comments on social media and displayed references on his car about his dissatisfaction with the judicial process. He also made threatening and abusive comments about the children’s mother, the children’s guardian, the social worker, and trial judge.

The children’s guardian applied to the court for an injunction to stop him, not only because she felt it was harassment and vilification of her, but also because what he was doing made it obvious that his children had been involved in private Children Act proceedings.

In this case, the court had to balance the father’s right to freedom of expression against the guardian’s and children’s rights to respect for private and family life. The judge came down in favour of the guardian’s and children’s rights over the father’s.
Whilst acknowledging the importance of ensuring parents involved in such proceedings can voice their grievances, the judge held that this did not extend to them making untrue, offensive, or derogatory comments about those involved in the proceedings.

The injunction was made against the father and the case was referred to the Attorney General for consideration of whether his conduct amounted to contempt of court by way of interference with the administration of justice.

It is important for parties in family proceedings to be aware, therefore, of the importance of not sharing or posting online, or in any other way, information, or material regarding any family law proceedings. Furthermore, even if the names of the parties or children are not mentioned, it may still be obvious from who is sharing the material, who those parties and children are, and therefore, fall foul of the requirement to keep such details confidential.

If you are experiencing unacceptable behaviour from a former partner, there is legal action you can take to stop them. A non-molestation order can be used to prevent your former partner from doing certain things, like physically assaulting you, harassing you, or coming near your home or place of work. It can cover a wide variety of actions, such as unwanted text messages and comments on social media.

If information has been publicly disclosed which makes your children’s involvement in family court proceedings obvious, an application for contempt can be made, which may result in the perpetrators conduct being treated as interfering with the course of justice.

If you require further information on family law matters, contact Maria Endall on 01328 863231 or email maria.endall@hayes-storr.com.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.