The smell of the Vaseline, the roar of the crowd

Family Law|May 14th 2015

I don’t watch any boxing these days, but I used to be a bit of a fan, back in the good old days of Harry Carpenter on the BBC. I remember some pretty bruising encounters, in which by the end of the bout the victor didn’t look much better than the man he had beaten.

It was therefore with a wry sense of grim amusement that I read the newspaper reports of Mr Justice Holman’s comments in the Fields divorce case, where he likened a contested financial remedies hearing to a boxing match. I’m not sure that I would agree entirely with his analogy: whilst the spouses may trade (sometimes vicious) blows and may both be battered and bruised by the end of the contest, at least in a boxing match there is a winner. In a contested divorce case there are only losers. OK, one party may think that they have done better than the other, but the truth is that the stress, time and money that they would have spent on it will be to the detriment of both parties, and the damage will be even worse if there are children involved.

But this isn’t the point I really wanted to talk about with regard to the Field case. What I wanted to talk about was Mr Justice Holman’s refusal of Mr Fields’ application for the hearing to be held behind closed doors.

The decision comes as no surprise. In these days when you can’t seem to read anything about family law without coming across the word ‘transparency’, judges are bending over backwards to be more open about the workings of their courts. Mr Justice Holman is reported to have responded to the application with the following:

“There is a very long tradition in this country of open justice. We sit in the name of the sovereign but on behalf of the public. How can people have any confidence in the way the system is being operated if they are excluded?

“The press have to be in here unless it is necessary to exclude them.

“Barristers have got to understand that so far as this judge is concerned and this court is concerned there is a very, very high public interest … in openness.

“The public are entitled not just to hear the sanitised judgment that a judge gives, they are entitled to hear the evidence and argument upon which he has based that judgment. They are entitled to see the judge at work.”

Which all sounds very impressive, but just how realistic is it? Such a stance presupposes that the media and the public care about the workings of our courts, but I’m not sure that they do. Generally speaking, the primary reasons for the press turning up at a family court hearing are because the participants possess a greater or (more often) lesser degree of celebrity, or because there is some element of scandal. They just want a bit of (preferably) salacious gossip to fill their column inches, and aren’t concerned in the slightest about the arcane practices of the family justice system. How many members of the Fourth Estate choose to attend family hearings that don’t involve celebrities or scandal? Very few.

On the other hand, what is the effect upon the parties of having their dirty linen washed in the full licentious gaze of the public? As I said above, it is damaging enough to go through contested court proceedings, but to have to share that experience with all and sundry adds a further layer of insult to the injuries. By all means publish judgments, anonymised if necessary, but any public benefit of reporting the proceedings themselves must be weighed against the damage to the parties and their families including, in particular, any children of the relationship.

I suppose what I am saying is that there shouldn’t be a presumption that it is best for hearings to be held in public. I realise that judicial time is in short supply, but there should be a proper balancing exercise, considering just why the media want access and what harm, if any, that access might cause. Family proceedings are not there purely for the entertainment of the masses.

Image by Kristin Wall via Flickr

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  1. Luke says:

    ” I remember some pretty bruising encounters, in which by the end of the bout the victor didn’t look much better than the man he had beaten.”
    Your analogy is A LOT closer to the truth than you realise John, because in standard boxing fare it can be a pretty shady business and do you know who are ALWAYS big winners at the end of a battle that is designed to be bruising and take people to their limits ?
    It’s the promoters, the matchmakers – the SYSTEM – remind you of anything ? 😐

  2. Andrew says:

    Shades of the Muppet Movie:

    The roar of the grease-paint, the smell of the crowd . . .

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