June 14 2014
Sir James Munby, said he would talk to lawyers, judges and social work chiefs about 'the possible hearing in public of certain types of family case'
Members of the public could be allowed in to the family courts to watch cases for the first time, a senior judge said yesterday.
The leading family law judge, Sir James Munby, said he would talk to lawyers, judges and social work chiefs about 'the possible hearing in public of certain types of family case'.
Sir James' plan raises the prospect of ordinary people being allowed to attend courts as they decide on cases of children taken from their parents into state care, adoption, and where children should live when their families break up.
In the past such cases have always been closed to the public because of fears that neighbours and those who knew the families could go to the family courts and then spread damaging gossip about children.
The promise to gather 'preliminary pre-consultation views' on allowing the public into family courts will be part of a paper on ending secrecy in the courts to be published shortly by Sir James, who is President of the Family Division.
The Daily Mail's campaign against secret justice has highlighted controversial decisions made behind closed doors in the family courts and the closely-related and even more secretive Court of Protection, which deals with the affairs of vulnerable adults.
Last year the Mail revealed that the Court of Protection secretly imprisoned a 50-year-old woman, Wanda Maddocks, for trying to get her elderly father out of a care home where she thought his life was in danger.
Sir James has since forbidden secret imprisonment and has ordered that judges must publish their rulings in family and Court of Protection cases.
Yesterday he said in a circular sent to judges that he is to press for further moves towards openness.
Approved journalists have been allowed in to family court hearings since 2009 following an attempt to open up the courts by Labour Justice Secretary Jack Straw.
However Mr Straw's rules applied only to journalists, not to members of the public, and allowed judges to apply reporting restrictions so that nothing about the cases they observed could be published.
Sir James' circular also promised that his consultation, to be published 'shortly', will press for the publication of court documents, so that outsiders who attend family courts will be able to understand lawyers and judges who argue their case by reference to secret documents.
It will also call for better announcements in advance of what cases will be in the courts and when.
'I will be canvassing views as to any ways in which the guidance can be improved, and, perhaps, extended,' Sir James said.