The family courts are there to serve the families who use them and are accountable to the wider public, even when they sit in private. This accountability goes beyond the system of appeals which remedies individual decisions that have been wrongly made. Notwithstanding its public function, the system has (perhaps inevitably) evolved to fit the convenience and comfort of those who inhabit it day in and day out: lawyers, judges, other professionals. This is not intentional, but it can be a bit cosy – and it can be difficult for outsiders and litigants to navigate. I want to argue that this is not healthy, that those of us working in family justice need to shift the way we work and our attitude towards transparency – even when it is uncomfortable, annoying or inconvenient. Imagine your mum entering your dark, funky teenaged bedroom, pulling back the curtains and opening the window wide declaring that ‘A bit of light and fresh air will do you good!’ Yes, in this analogy we are the reluctant teenagers, and yes, it’s for our own good, even though it hurts our eyes and gets on our nerves.

We all have a collective interest in the proper administration of justice, and in ensuring access to it. This means making the system comprehensible, visible and responsive to feedback. A system driven by self-interest, defensiveness or habit is unlikely to function optimally. I see signs, particularly in this period when the system is struggling under the ever-increasing workload, that parents who seek help from the court are sometimes seen as an inconvenience – but we cannot wish away family breakdown and dysfunction. Resolving these disputes when other means have failed (or are inappropriate) is one of the core functions of the family court.

Early on in my legal career I was one of the first (UK) ‘lawyers who blogged’, starting my Pink Tape blog in 2007, and around the same time I took to Twitter when it was still mainly populated with IT geeks (no, lawyers did not invent Twitter). It was from Pink Tape that the idea for my book, The Family Court without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person emerged. I’m now wrestling with the fourth edition, and Pink Tape is still going, but the sniffy disapproval with which they were initially met by some professional colleagues stays with me.

Through those projects I became aware of the numbers of people who were profoundly confused by the law and in particular family law and family court process: worried about what they might face, and distressed by their experiences during and afterwards. In the early days of blogging I was constantly explaining misconceptions, answering queries about points of procedure or law, and myth-busting in the face of tendentious reporting and some very dodgy ‘advice’ from campaigners. Looking back, there was certainly an element of needing to reflexively defend the system that was so heavily criticised and so badly misunderstood, as a proxy for self-defence of my own ethics and professionalism.

Over time, I’ve learned the value of defending less and listening more, because experience has taught me the value of other people’s perspectives – particularly of outsiders and non-lawyers – and revealed both unavoidable limitations and avoidable failures and flaws. Criticisms of lawyers, judges and social workers are often unfair (sometimes dangerous), and demand pushback – but it is also important to listen to what people say about how the system treated them and their loved ones and think about what that might tell us about the system and how it might improve.

For me, that shift in perspective has revealed the extent to which the family justice system functions as a closed feedback loop, borne of its private mode of working and constraints on proper, informed public debate – it has shone a light on how defensive and unreceptive we can sometimes be. Scrutiny is uncomfortable for us all, but it is important – and entirely normal in many other areas of the justice system and in other public service institutions. Transparency reveals the good and the bad. And more importantly it facilitates change – and when done well can be a showcase for all that is good at the same time (as the amazing Open Justice Court of Protection project has demonstrated in the last year or so).

The Transparency Project (TP) was founded in 2014: a mix of blogging lawyers, journalists, legal publishers and academics. Initially, our focus was on correcting poor and inaccurate journalism – setting the record straight. Over time we have developed a more nuanced approach to media coverage of family courts – acknowledging the importance of facilitating public interest reporting and news coverage of family courts, highlighting and crediting good quality journalism, trying to understand why things sometimes go wrong, how the press work, the barriers the media face, and to support reporters who are doing their imperfect best to do better. But we still call out poor or inaccurate journalism when we see it.

TP sought and achieved charitable status in 2015. We wanted the lodestar of charitable objectives to direct and focus us. The discipline of drafting those objectives was itself a valuable exercise. Transparency is a vast and nebulous topic: it’s not just about media reports of cases or numbers of published judgments. It’s about transparency of data and patterns and creating ways of striking a balance between privacy and openness, the creation of channels of communication, and feedback, the provision of clear plain English explanations of the law and process.

Nor is it about ‘taking away children’s privacy’ (a revealing remark from a colleague in the early days). It’s about finding other ways to tell the story of family court cases; for instance through attending hearings as observers (such as via the ‘legal blogging’ pilot which was launched following our proposal in 2018 and which will become a permanent feature of the Family Procedure Rules from 1 October this year) and publishing accounts that contrast, complement or challenge those produced by the mainstream media.

A change of perspective and external feedback can make the invisible water we swim in suddenly visible. This alternative perspective is a feature of our discussion and debate on the TP team and it is a breath of fresh air. When outsiders say of some accepted way of working that they have observed, ‘but why do you do it that way?’, I don’t always have a good answer. When I have attended court as a legal blogger and sat at the back of the courtroom struggling to hear, trying not to inconvenience the main actors, I have sensed how unintentionally excluding, and frankly sometimes disrespectful, the behaviour of us lawyers can be, and in turn have realised how it must feel to be a parent being talked about, by a lawyer with her back literally turned away from you as she does so.

When I turn up to court wearing my legal blogger hat (I don’t have an actual hat by the way) I don’t feel like an insider. I know that my presence causes anxiety, confusion and sometimes irritation – though usually not the sort of outright hostility that journalists can experience. At best, when people know me as a colleague or by reputation, I seem to be viewed as some sort of oddity: ‘Why are you spending your day off doing this? …There really isn’t anything interesting about this case to write about’. ‘Ah’, I say, ‘But that is exactly the sort of ‘ordinary’ that needs to be made visible’.

I have delivered talks and training to judges, lawyers, social workers and journalism students about transparency and the need for it – sometimes what I say is really hard for them to hear and I can see my audience bristling. ‘She is making more work for us’, ‘just one more thing for us to worry about’, ‘I don’t want to be in the newspapers, journalists can’t be trusted’, etc.

I am a member of the Family Bar. I am one of you. I know and understand the pressures we are all under, and well understand the need for privacy and sensitivity. But I feel at times that I am part insider and part traitorous spiller-of-beans and challenger of norms, part preachy do-gooder. So, sometimes I feel a bit of a misfit.

But I also know that my transparency journey has changed and improved my practice. We lawyers are prone to persuade ourselves we know best, and to broadcast our cleverness to the world on social media – but in truth we have a lot to learn from the observations of others. Most of all we have a lot to learn from those who have lived their lives under the scrutiny of the family court, quite literally judged by others in ways we are rarely prepared to be. 

‘I’m now wrestling with the fourth edition, and Pink Tape is still going, but the sniffy disapproval with which they were initially met by some professional colleagues stays with me.’