Private Life in the Public Eye
  • 13th Jun 2016
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Paul McCartney & Heather Mills, Madonna & Guy Ritchie, Liam Gallagher & Nicole Appleton and Kate Winslet & Sam Mendes are, to name but a few, celebrity couples who, as well as having to undergo the pain of a family breakdown, had to do so (to varying degrees) in the public spotlight.  National and international mainstream media will often report on such stories, not just the branch of journalism devoted to celebrity gossip.

However, media intrusion into private life will not just concern platinum selling recording artists or Oscar winning actors. Regional media may find court reports of divorce cases interesting, if an individual is a local business leader, or public figure.  In those circumstances, what right do the media have to report the proceedings and how can parties seek to restrict that?

As a general rule, justice must be seen to be done.  Courts should not be secret.  For the public to understand how the law works there should be the chance to see cases conducted, hear the evidence and understand the arguments.  However, there may be reasons to restrict what can be reported, for example to protect children, or commercially sensitive information.  The latter is important in financial matters on divorce where there is a requirement to disclose the full extent of financial worth and dealings to each other.

For some time, all family cases took place in private, but more recent shifts towards more public hearings have taken place.  Even where a hearing is taking place in private (which is still the common practice) while the general public has no right to attend, accredited members of the press are entitled to be present. 

If members of the press attend and parties object to that, they can ask the judge to exclude the press, but the presumption is in favour of their presence.  Even if the press is present, the court can restrict what is reported, but to allow the press to attend and then prohibit them from reporting would be paradoxical.

It is not an absolute rule that all such hearings are in private, and the judge can direct that the hearing takes place in open court, to which members of the public are permitted to attend.  In one case in open court in 2015, whilst the judge regretted the distress to the divorcing couple the media attention of the case attracted, he remained of the view that the public interest in open justice outweighed that distress.

Conversely, when Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton divorced, they sought an order prohibiting the press from reporting on their case.  The court upheld that, as neither party had sought publicity, it would limit the reporting of the case to their names, to being photographed arriving and leaving court, and to whatever was already in the public domain which perhaps seems a fairer balance between privacy and transparency.

The law is therefore in some state of divergence and for the time being, whether or not a case is reported publicly should the media take an interest, will very much depend on how the individual judge perceives the balance between openness and privacy.

The best way to avoid public attention is to avoid court in the first instance.  Many options are open to separating spouses and partners to resolve their differences and to which the public and media have no right to attendance: mediation, round table discussions (sometimes known as collaborative) or arbitration being the most common.  A Resolution solicitor will encourage clients to consider those options before court proceedings are commenced. 

Not only do those options allow separating spouses or partners to resolve issues arising from their separation with more control and less cost exposure than via the court system, it will also save the risk of facts the parties would prefer not to be made known becoming public. For some clients this will be a very compelling argument indeed to avoid a Court application.

The family team at Whitehead Monckton have a wealth of experience providing guidance and advice in all areas relating to separation or divorce. If you wish to discuss any of the points raised in this article, please contact a member of the Family Team.