Sun 1 Apr, 2007

The Family Court, Families and the Public Gaze

On 1 July 2005, after 25 years of private legal proceedings, the Family Court in New Zealand was opened up to the media and hence to the public gaze.

This was a substantial reversal of previous regulation of court reporting in the Family Court. The general approach to reporting court cases in New Zealand has always been one of open justice – the law recognises that the media performs an important public function in reporting the daily business of our courts and should generally have open access to do so. However, this had not been the case with the Family Court.

Previously, in the perceived interests of child and family privacy, the Guardianship Act 1968 placed restrictions on reporting details of custody, access, guardianship and wardship cases. However, social, cultural and constitutional changes led to a call for more transparency in the court based on allegations and perceptions which were eventually acknowledged to undermine the Family Court’s integrity (NZLC, 2003:197). The shift in popular opinion was dramatic: Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier commented that he doubted “any Court has attracted as much publicity and been under such scrutiny as the Family Court has, in recent times” (Boshier, 2004a). Accordingly, the Care of Children Act 2004 legalised media coverage of and presence at Family Court proceedings concerning children from July 2005.

This research project was developed to investigate the effects of media reporting of Family Court proceedings following this hugely significant change in the law. It sought to exploit a unique opportunity to investigate whether the new openness made a difference to public awareness and understanding of the Family Court dispute resolution process and if so, what that difference was. It also hoped to be able to assess the extent to which the new openness of the court served the interests of families and children.