Judge rejects bid to bar reporter from divorce court

A judge has rejected an application by a man involved in divorce proceedings to bar the press from attending hearings about the case, although the journalist who was in court remained unable to report details of the hearing.

The application was made at a hearing before Mr Justice Charles in Manchester District Registry in Manchester on April 27 – the first day on which the family courts were open to the media under reforms introduced by Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

It is thought to be the first case dealing with an application for media exclusion.

The husband argued, through counsel, that the media should excluded from court as it would be most unfortunate if the press were allowed to follow and report on the dispute with his estranged partner.

Mr Justice Charles said in a published judgment on the application: “His view is that that serves no useful purpose and could inflict severe damage on his property business, perhaps even bringing it to a premature end.

“He therefore asks that the Court ensures that the proceedings remain a wholly private matter.”

The judge said he understood the husband’s worries that the product of publication, even in an anonymised form, could damage the business and also damage the trade out of the business.

But the judge said it also seemed to him that the husband’s concerns related to what the media might or might not be able to publish.

The force of the submission was that media representatives should be excluded from the hearing because that would remove all risk of publication and would also mean that issues about the statutory and discretionary restrictions and discretionary would not need to be considered.

“To my mind, that only has to be stated to demonstrate the flaw in the argument,” Mr Justice Charles said.

A Practice Direction related specifically to media attendance and made it clear that the basis of the change was that generally media representatives should be entitled to attend.

The question was whether there was anything particular in this case which would mean that that course should not be followed.

Although there would be points relating to the parties’ private finances and possibly to the children, the focus of these proceedings would relate to the parties’ financial affairs.

Mr Justice Charles went on: “It is said that the presence of a representative of the media might inhibit the husband from giving full and frank evidence.

“That submission also gives rise to a need to trawl a number of existing authorities in this field and others. To my mind, it is not a compelling submission, particularly when it is remembered that the more serious an issue that is raised in the context of a private hearing, the more likely it is that it would have to be reported by the Court to the relevant public authority.

“So, one comes back, to my mind, to the issue as to what the media can or cannot publish, having been present throughout the hearing. That is what lies at the heart of the husband’s objection, rather than the attendance of the representative of the media.

“To my mind, there is nothing exceptional about this case by reference to the financial position of the husband, confidential trading information or trade secrets or anything else that would warrant the course being taken of excluding the representatives of the media from exercising their right to attend as conferred by the change in the rules.

“That does not mean that issues will not arise in the future in this case relating to what can and cannot be published but, to my mind, absent an application, those are at present future problems.”

These issues could be taken to the court either by the parties or the media, the judge said, adding: “In the latter case, if the media were minded to publish, they might be seeking the permission of the Court to make reference to certain matters to ensure that the relevant reporter and editor would not be at risk of proceedings based on Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act.

“On the other side, the parties may seek the comfort of injunctive relief to ensure that the matters as to what can and cannot be published are clarified. If that injunctive relief is sought, the practice directions referred to in the President’s Guidance should be complied with.

“It therefore seems to me that, at this stage, I should refuse to exclude a representative or representatives of the media from attending at this hearing and in the absence of an application either by the media or by the parties in respect of what may or not be published, to leave those matters to the provisions as put in place by Parliament through the change in the rules. This leaves the matters that can be published to, essentially, Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act.”

Mr Justice Charles added: “It seems to me that if these new provisions are to work in the public interest, there needs to be some co-operation between the courts, the parties and the media.

“To my mind, the stance taken by the media representative who is present today is one which demonstrates that he is approaching the issue responsibly. Therefore if, as he indicated might be the case, he was to remain and was of the view that there was something he might wish to publish relating to the detail of the case based on what he had heard, it can be expected that he would draw that to the attention of the parties and the Court so that the matter could be taken forward in an appropriate way, having regard to the competing public and private interest that would invoke.

“What I propose to do is to refuse the application to exclude accredited representatives of the media from being present and do nothing more at this stage.”

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