Divorce judge calls for 'greater openness'

By
Roger Pearson The veil of secrecy hanging over many divorce court
decisions could be lifted if one of the country’s top divorce judges
has his way.

Former High Court Family Division judge, now a
member of the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Nicholas Wall has publicly
called for “greater openness” in family courts and for judgments to be
given in public.

He believes it could lead to greater public
understanding of the work of the courts and prevent uninformed
criticism of decisions which, because of the procedures currently used,
the press have no access to.

The judge’s call came during an
appeal in an adoption case. He and the other judges had been told that
the case had led to newspaper reports branding Essex Council staff as
“child snatchers”

after two children were forcibly taken from their family for adoption.

The
reports questioned the fairness of proceedings in the County Court and
High Court, which would have been dealt with behind closed doors.

However,
Lord Justice Wall said that if family law judgments were rendered
anonymous and opened to the press and public, it could prevent them
from being misrepresented as miscarriages of justice.

Referring
to the case that resulted in criticism of the council staff in Essex,
he said: “No fair-minded outsider reading the judgments of the two
judges could possibly conclude that either decision represented a
miscarriage of justice.”

However, he emphasised that outsiders had been given no opportunity to read the judgments because of the present procedures.

He
continued: “This case provides a strong argument for those who, like
myself, take the view that the judgments of Family Division judges
ought, as a matter of routine, to be given in anonymised form in open
court.”

The judge’s suggestion, if taken up, would in fact amount
to a reversion to past procedures. Years ago far more family court
decisions were made available, sometimes in anonymised form and
sometimes not.

However, down the years increasing restrictions
have been imposed to the extent that these days virtually no family
hearings are in public. Some judgments are made available for reporting
if judges consider they raise legal points of importance or the subject
matter of the case is of public importance.

However, the bulk of decisions are not classified in this way.

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