On your divorce, do you need to worry about the press airing your dirty laundry in public?
A recent case involving a husband and wife's financial claims arising from their divorce will provide some comfort to those worried that their dirty laundry will be aired in public. The case was heard in London in January 2012 but settled shortly before a judgment which was due to be given in March 2012.
Members of the media had attended the hearing following on from the last Labour Government's initiative to open up the family courts to the media. The main case had settled but there then followed another hearing to determine the issue of whether The Times newspaper could report the case in the press. The husband and his parents, who had intervened in the proceedings, were opposed to this but the wife remained neutral.
The husband and his father, who had both given evidence, were concerned that if their private financial affairs were to be made public it would put their careers at risk and, they alleged, possibly put their lives at risk. They were also concerned about the embarrassment it would cause. The husband and his father were in business together.
Family cases are usually heard in private but they can be reported in certain circumstances. One of the main reasons family cases are heard in private is to protect the safety and welfare of children but in this case the parties did not have any children. The judge had to weigh the competing interests of the press to the right to freedom of expression and the husband and his father to a right to a private and family life. Both rights are human rights and are enshrined in Articles 10 and 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, respectively.
The Labour Government had originally decided to open up the family courts to the media in certain circumstances to help enhance the public's understanding of the family justice system. The judge could not see how reporting the case would further this aim. He was in fact concerned that if the media had reported the financial affairs of the husband's business then the privacy of other individuals would have been interfered with. Those individuals were not involved in the proceedings and it would not have been fair on them to have found their private financial business reported in The Times. On balance, the judge concluded that the case should not be reported by the media, save for skeleton details about the fact and date of the Hearing and the fact and date of the settlement. The case has therefore been reported in an anonymous fashion using the initials A v A.
The topic of press regulation and freedom of expression is of course pertinent following the recent Leveson enquiry. Many celebrities have complained and given evidence to the Leveson public enquiry that the press have intruded into their lives in a way that has been excessive. There has also been upset caused to the families of Milly Dowler and Madeline McCann and it appears that David Cameron is coming under some pressure to introduce legislation. We will have to watch this space as to whether that happens. For now, though, at least those going through what is one of the most stressful life events, namely a breakdown of their marriage, can rest assured that their private financial affairs will, generally speaking, remain confidential following a court hearing.