Top judge defends press freedom as he opens family courts to 'the glare of publicity'

A senior judge has said the judiciary should not try to “exercise any kind of editorial control” over the media.

In a ruling that will allow the press to report freely on family courts, Sir James Munby yesterday said “the glare of publicity” should be allowed to fall on cases involving adoption or children being taken into care,

Munby, who is president of the family division of the High Court, emphasised the important role journalists had to play in maintaining transparency in courts and spoke against the use of injunctions to impose “prior restraint” on newspapers.

He said: “It is not the role of the judge to seek to exercise any kind of editorial control over the manner in which the media reports information which it is entitled to publish.

“Comment and criticism may be ill informed and based on misunderstanding  or misrepresentation of the facts.

“The fear of criticism, however justified the fear may be, is, however, not of itself a justification for prior restraint by injunction.”

Munby went on to say that tabloids should be as free to report on the courts as other publications.

“If there is no basis for injuncting a story expressed in the temperate or scholarly language of a legal periodical or the broadsheet press, there can be no basis for injuncting the same story simply because it is expressed in the more robust, colourful or intemperate language of the tabloid press or even in language which is crude, insulting and vulgar.”

He added that “freedom of speech is not something to be awarded to those who are thought deserving and denied to those who are thought undeserving.”

Munby’s ruling could allow newspapers to name social workers and councils involved in controversial cases in the family courts.

He said there was “a pressing need” for greater transparency in the family courts.

The judgement came in the case of four children who had been taken into state care.

The father of the children made a video of the moment his children had been taken by social workers and police officers, which has now been posted on Mail Online after Munby dismissed an application for an injunction.

The dismissal of the gagging order also means that the social workers and the local authority that applied for it – Staffordshire County Council – can now be named.

The Mail said the judge had “struck a blow for free speech” with his ruling, adding that it had put him “on a collision course with fellow lawyers and politicians” over press regulation.

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