Some family cases could be heard in public and advocates’ documents given to the press under plans outlined by the president of the family division aimed at reducing the secrecy of the system.
In a five-page paper published this week, Sir James Munby said he is seeking ‘preliminary pre-consultation views’ on the possibility of hearing certain types of family case in public.
Munby said that after a further consultation, specific proposals would be piloted. For now he is seeking views on the types of cases that might be appropriate for public hearing, what restrictions and safeguards would be needed, and what form a pilot might take.
He has also proposed disclosing some case papers, including documents prepared by advocates, case summaries, position statements and skeleton arguments as well as expert reports to the media, subject to restrictions and safeguards.
Munby said the move would ‘facilitate’ the media’s understanding of cases and ‘assist them in performing their watchdog role’. Disclosed documents will remain confidential, unless the judge orders otherwise, and any copying, onward transmission or disclosure by the media would be a contempt.
Munby said the disclosure of experts’ reports was ‘more complicated and more controversial’.
Initially, he said disclosure would be confined to reports in the ‘hard sciences’ and any report will be released only after the judge has heard submissions from those involved, including on whether contents should be redacted or anonymised.
On the possible impact of disclosure, Munby said: ‘It will be important to see whether the prospect of disclosure of their reports impinges on the willingness of doctors and others to offer their services as experts, and also on the content and quality of their reports.’
Munby would also like to take steps to improve the way family cases are listed, to make it more ‘informative’ to the media. Currently cases are listed with an alpha-numeric system that reveals nothing to the lay person about the case.
Outlining the plans, Munby said opening up the family courts to public scrutiny is a key element of the ‘transparency agenda’. But he said that needed to be done at the same time as ‘preserving confidentiality and respecting the private and family lives of those whom the system serves’.
‘There is a clear need for greater transparency in order to improve public understanding of the court process and confidence in the court system… the public has a legitimate interest in being able to read what is being done by judges in their name,’ he said.
But he added: ‘The process of reform must be incremental and informed at every stage by the views obtained from consultation with everyone who may be affected.’