The most senior family judge in England and Wales, renowned among practitioners for his outspoken views, is to step down next year.
A spokesperson for the judiciary confirmed that Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, will be retiring next year after The Times reported today that Munby will be stepping down in 18 months. Munby turns 70 in July 2018.
Munby has been at the forefront of efforts to improve the transparency of the family courts system. In 2014 he issued guidance on publication on family courts and the courts of protection in order to 'bring about immediate and significant change'.
Known for speaking frankly, Munby recently berated the state of equipment in family courts, including his own court in London’s Royal Courts of Justice, in his View from the president’s chambers.
He said: 'When, recently, I needed a screen in my court, the only workable solution was found to be the careful placing in the jury box - relic of the days when divorce suits were tried before juries - of a vast and very heavy wooden screen which required a number of porters to install it,’ he recalled.
'On one recent occasion when, having moved to another court in the RCJ, I used a video link, everyone and everything appeared on screen in such a bright blue shade as to remind me of [the film] Avatar. On another recent occasion everything on screen appeared bathed in that green translucent glow one associates with underwater photography.’
In a Court of Appeal judgment in December last year, Munby suggested the official solicitor should have a role to play in relation to committal orders which result from contempt of court.
He noted that 'the problem of contemnors languishing in the Fleet prison, whether through poverty, ignorance, obstinacy, lack of resolve or choice, was addressed by Sir Edward Sugden, then solicitor general, later, as Lord St Leonards, the lord chancellor, who took the initiative which led to the enactment of the Contempt of Court Act 1830’.
Lately, Munby has repeated calls for urgent action to address the needs of children and vulnerable witnesses in family proceedings. Rules and practice directions recommended by a working group he set up two years ago were still not in place.
Munby said he did not want to have to start 2018 with a further call to action, adding that there was ’depressingly little to show for over two years’ hard pounding’.
Munby’s successor is not expected to be known until next year. Heads of division are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of a selection panel convened by the Judicial Appointments Commission.
The selection panel comprises the lord chief justice, the most senior England and Wales Supreme Court judge or the judge’s nominee, the chairman of the JAC or chair’s nominee, a lay member of the JAC Commission designated by the JAC chair, and a person nominated by the lord chief justice.
Munby, who was called to the bar in 1971, is a former member of New Square Chambers. He was appointed queen’s counsel in 1988.
He was appointed a High Court judge in May 2000, assigned to the Family Division. He became a lord justice of appeal in October 2009. He was chair of the Law Commission from August 2009 to August 2012.