Family court hearings should be open to the public, says senior judge

Family Law|June 19th 2014

Sir James Munby has raised the possibility of public access to some family court hearings.

In a new circular sent to judges, the President of the Family Division said he would investigate the possibility of allowing some hearings to be heard in public. He is seeking “preliminary pre-consultation views” from the judges, other lawyers, and senior social workers on public access to “certain types of family case”.

Currently only journalists are permitted to attend family cases.

Since his appointment, the President has made waves with a push for greater openness in the family courts and this proposal will form part of a full consultation to be published soon on further moves towards transparency. It will address the publication of court documents and propose improvements to the pre-announcement of court hearings.

Sir James said:

“I will be canvassing views as to any ways in which the guidance can be improved, and, perhaps, extended.”

I can’t help but wonder how the possibility of public access will be received by social workers and legal professionals. Is it a step too far? While openness is a fine principle, the fact remains that family court hearings have traditionally taken place behind closed doors for a very good reason: to protect the privacy, at least to some extent, of the individuals concerned. By its very nature, family law deals with some very personal topics – the breakdown of a relationship, infidelity, money, family life. Few people are keen to wash their dirty laundry in public.

If this proposal does proceed, the types of hearing open to the public will almost certainly be restricted and exclude featuring children. The privacy of the innocent children caught up in family proceedings has been long a fundamental principal of family law and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

On the other hand, it’s the children’s cases –  for example, adoption orders and  contact and residence in private and care hearings – that undoubtedly cause the most controversy, not to mention almost anything in the Court of Protection. Perhaps it’s precisely these which he has in mind, subject to the most stringent of safeguards of course. But public attendance at such hearings seems like a serious imposition on those people taking part, and the necessary safeguards don’t bear thinking about. I’d have thought there’d be uproar.

But when it comes to the Court of Appeal, cases there are actually already heard in public. So why is he now pushing for cases in the lower courts to be opened up – for example finance cases? Surely these are private? Most never get near the Court of Appeal.

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