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Privacy ruling in the family court

by Rebecca Harling
2 October 2015

Appleton v Gallagher confirms that parties in the family court are entitled to privacy in relation to their financial affairs. Rebecca Harling, a solicitor in the family department at Thomas Eggar LLP, provides an overview of current reporting restrictions in financial remedies proceedings.

In his judgment in Appleton v Gallagher and Ors [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam), Mr Justice Mostyn has confirmed that parties in the family court are entitled to privacy in relation to their financial affairs. The ruling relates to the now-divorced celebrity musicians Nicole Appleton and Liam Gallagher. Pursuant to an interim ruling, the press have been permitted to report only the names of the parties, photographs of them arriving and leaving court and the fact that their privacy in court is being argued about.

Mr Justice Mostyn has confirmed that:

'Information compulsorily extracted by one party from the other is subject to an implied undertaking that it will not be published or used for any purpose other than the proceedings.'

This is because parties to financial proceedings must provide the court, the lawyers and the other party with full and frank disclosure of the most intimate details of their financial affairs and their private lives. If their evidence was subject to media publication to the world at large, this would create a potential barrier to the truthful evidence that the Court requires. It would seem perfectly logical that anyone (let alone anyone with a media following) would dread such personal information being published in this manner.

This judgment echoes his ruling in the recent case of DL v SL [2015] EWHC 2621 (Fam) where he made an order preserving the anonymity of the parties in financial remedy proceedings. Mr Justice Mostyn confirmed the importance of the presence of the press as a watchdog:

'It is my opinion that the law concerning the presence of the media in these private proceedings ..., is to enable the press to be the eyes and ears of the public so as to ensure that the case is conducted fairly and to enable the public to be educated in an abstract and general way about the processes that are deployed, but does not extend to breaching the privacy of the parties in these proceedings'.

But he made it clear that freedom of expression cannot be permitted to compromise the privacy of the parties and the effectiveness of the hearings themselves.

The law governing reporting restrictions in family hearings is fairly uncertain with differences of opinion among even the judges of different divisions. Mr Justice Holman is in favour of no press restrictions in his Court of Appeal cases, whereas other judges, including Mr Justice Mostyn, are applying the law more conservatively. Further judicial clarification is arguably needed.

In fitting timing, the House of Commons Library has also very recently published a briefing paper looking at the issue of confidentiality and openness in the family court. The paper sets out the current rules on transparency, media attendance and the publication of judgments, as well as a history of recent changes to the transparency of the family courts and a consultation on further measures to improve transparency.

News Group Newspapers have been granted permission to appeal the ruling in Appleton v Gallagher. This is a hot topic at present and these arguments are certain to resurface soon.


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