MP calls for new listing system for family law cases to allow journalists easier access to background information

An MP has called for a change in the way family courts and the Court of Protection are covered to allow greater access to journalists.

Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming said courts need to develop a new system of listing cases – many of which are only cited by a letter or number to protect the identity of children or vulnerable people.

However, this system prevents journalists from identifying cases of significant public interest unless they are made aware of the nature of a hearing by one of the parties.

Hemming said listing cases by number or letter unfairly hampered journalists, who are allowed into hearings, and gave members of the public, who are normally barred, no clue about the kind of work judges in family courts and the Court of Protection did.

He said an alternative might be to list cases by topic, which would give reporters and members of the public an indication of what the hearing was about but still protect the identities of people involved.

Hemming's call came four months after judge Sir James Munby, the president of the Family Division of the High Court and of the Court of Protection, said he wanted family justice to become more transparent – and days after a judge in the Court of Protection said he had personally contacted the press to alert journalists to a case which he thought was of public interest but was only listed as "P".

He said he had written to Sir James – the most senior family judge in England and Wales – to ask him to consider the "important issue".

He said: "Even though journalists are allowed into family and Court of Protection courts, how can they realistically make decisions about what to cover if cases are listed by numbers? They have no way of knowing what the case is about."

Hemming is the MP for Birmingham Yardley and is chairman of the group Justice for families.

He continued: “If there are problems listing cases by names, because the identity of litigants can't be revealed, why can't cases be listed by topic, for example? Maybe: 'Dispute over money following marriage breakdown', 'Local authority application to take child into care', 'Woman's application to leave care home'.

"That would give journalists some idea of whether it was worth their while going into court and asking a judge if the case can be reported.

"It would also give members of the public some idea about the kind of issues family courts deal with – even though cases are in private and members of the public are not normally allowed in.

"Sir James Munby has said he wants transparency and he wants the media to shine the light of publicity into family courts.

"So isn't it time that serious thought was given to listing cases in plain English so that journalists know when to switch on their torches?

"I have written to the office of the president of the Family Division of the High Court to ask for the important issue as to how cases are listed to be considered."

He added: "Imagine if football fixtures were listed not by teams but by club VAT numbers? Games would be played in public but fans wouldn't have any idea who was playing so wouldn't know whether they wanted to go or not."

Hemmings comments follow the move by District Judge Anselem Eldergill who contacted the Press Association on Friday about a case he was hearing in the Court of Protection.

The judge told lawyers involved in the hearing in London that he thought the case dealt with an issue of public interest. He said he thought that journalists should have the chance to make an application to cover the case. But he said the press would not get any indication of the nature of the case from the way it was listed by letter.

Judge Eldergill ruled that aspects of the case – which features an elderly woman with dementia who wants to leave a care facility and return home – could be reported after hearing an application from a reporter.

He said the journalist could report that the woman, who is in her 80s, had been a Labour councillor who had stood for Parliament and campaigned for better treatment for dementia sufferers. But he said she should not be identified. He also said his comments about the press and the case listing could be reported.

The judge is due to analyse arguments at a final hearing later this year.

Hemming said: "I would wish to congratulate Judge Eldergill for his understanding of the need for transparency."

The Court of Protection is part of the High Court and judges analyse cases involving vulnerable and sick people.

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