Judge calls for fewer reporting restrictions on family courts

A growing chink is appearing in the secrecy that for years has
shrouded family justice in secrecy. That chink will widen even more
following a call by one of the country's senior family judges for an
easing of restrictions governing the reporting of family courts.

The
call came this evening (Thursday) from Lord Justice Wall a former High
Court Family Division judge and now an Appeal Court judge.

As he
gave the Hershman/Levy Memorial Lecture in Birmingham he said that
allowing the media to report family court proceedings would help
overturn accusations and criticism that the family justice system was
designed to be secretive.

"I am in favour of giving the media
access to family proceedings, provided that there are clear ground
rules about what they can and cannot report and the extent to which, if
at all, they are to be at liberty when reporting the proceedings, to
identify the parties and in particular the children concerned," he said.

"I
find it unacceptable that conscientious magistrates and judges,
struggling to make difficult decisions in the best interests of
children should be accused of administering ‘secret justice'.
Confidentiality was imposed by Parliament not the courts."

However, Lord Justice Wall said he was opposed to the admission of the public into family courts;

"There
is a difference between the public interest and public curiosity.
Parents and children in family proceedings have a right to privacy; if
the public was admitted it would be impossible to prevent people
attending hearings when their real interest was to learn about the
family's confidential affairs. It would also be impossible to prevent
such people talking about the case to their friends and neighbours, so
that the integrity of the proceedings would be compromised."

Lord
Justice Wall said that judges should – as a matter of routine – give
family judgments in open court with the names kept anonymous if
necessary so that the public could be informed. It was the issues which
cases raised that were important, not the personalities of the parties
to the case, he added.

He said he believed there needed to be a
dialogue between the judiciary and media before access was given to
reporting family courts.

Reporting needed to be accurate and
responsible, not sensationalist. Judges could assist this process by
providing clear and easily digestible summaries of complex legal
judgments, he said.

The judge's comments came just days after a
ruling in which the rules on naming children in family proceedings once
those proceedings have ended were relaxed.

Welcoming the judge's
comments a High Court insider said : "Family courts used to be far more
open than they are now. However, the curtains were brought down many
years ago and they have virtually been a closed book since.

"An
absurd situation exists where cases in the Family Division are, as a
matter of course, heard in private. Yet, if there is an appeal to the
Appeal Court, the matter is then as a matter of course heard in open
court though sometimes there is a ban on identifying the parties.

"The
practice followed in the Appeal Court, and come to that the House of
Lords, works perfectly well and provides the necessary anonymity for
the parties in cases where they should not be named.

"Why the
Family Division should not use the same system has for long been a
complete mystery to journalists covering the High Court. A change is
long long overdue and all strength to those like Lord Justice Wall who
are calling for it.

"I know there are several other judges in the Family Division and in the Appeal Court who feel the same way."

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