‘Family Court must be less secretive’: Senior judge calls for ‘major shift in culture’ to allow for effective public scrutiny of system
A ‘major shift in culture’ is overdue to make the workings of the Family Court less secretive, the most senior family judge said yesterday.
Current rules do not allow for effective public scrutiny and there has been ‘legitimate media and public concern’ about the way the courts operate, Sir Andrew McFarlane said.
Family courts make life-changing decisions about divorces, adoptions and whether children should be taken into care, but journalists face tough restrictions over whether they can report on court hearings.
Sir Andrew, president of the Family Division of the High Court, said the lack of public scrutiny means that families have little understanding of how the courts operate, and potential mistakes – including ‘significant judicial errors’ – only come to light if cases are taken to the Court of Appeal.
After carrying out a two-year review of transparency in family courts, he said the current system was ‘unsatisfactory’, and risked damaging public confidence.
Sir Andrew said: ‘The public have a legitimate interest in understanding how the court approaches these really important decisions.
Sir Andrew McFarlane (pictured), president of the Family Division of the High Court, said the lack of public scrutiny means that families have little understanding of how the courts operate
‘There is no more draconian decision that can be made than removing someone’s children permanently or sending them off for adoption.’
Family courts in England and Wales decide thousands of cases each year and Sir Andrew said they were now called upon to rule on complex issues involving surrogacy, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, transgender rights and domestic abuse. But the rules that regulate the reporting of such cases have been largely unchanged for decades.
Successive ministers and senior judges have supported more transparency, but Sir Andrew said the pace of change had been ‘glacial’.
He proposed greater access to hearings and documents for journalists and bloggers, and a change in court rules to mean they can report proceedings unless a judge specifies they should not do so.
Current rules mean journalists can attend hearings, but it is against the law to report the evidence unless a judge approves an application.
Sir Andrew said parents should have greater freedom to alert journalists to cases of concern, without the fear of breaking court rules. There had been a ‘drip-drip of concerning stories’ involving parents and victims of domestic abuse who had complained to the media about their treatment in the Family Court.
The judge said courts sitting in private was ‘bound to lead to a loss of public confidence and a perception that there is something to hide’.
In his report, he said: ‘The level of legitimate media and public concern about the workings of the Family Court is now such that it is necessary for the court to regard openness as the new norm.
‘There needs to be a major shift in culture and process to increase the transparency of the system. The current limited degree of openness does not permit effective public scrutiny.’
Sir Andrew said some key information about cases involving children would need to remain secret to ensure they remained anonymous – as usually happens at present.
His proposals will need to be endorsed by ministers, but he said he hoped a pilot scheme could be implemented in some courts without the need for legislation.