Reforms to allow more media access to the family courts can be made without new legislation, the president of the family division said yesterday.
Sir James Munby, who has long argued for allowing the ‘glare of publicity’ in to family courts, told newspaper editors that the first step will be the introduction of the final version of practice guidance covering publication of judgments in the family courts and the court of protection. It will appear later this year.
'This is currently being revised and adjusted to take into account the many comments and suggestions I have received,' he said.
The next step is to consider ways to enable the media to have access to 'some at least' of documents used in court. Such access is essential if there is to be any meaningful use of the media's right of access to hearings, he said. 'The questions of course, and the answers are not immediately apparent, are: what documents? In what form (for example, anonymised or redacted)? And subject to what safeguards?'
While public consultation and debate will be essential, 'I am confident that we will be able to make progress, even if initially on a cautious and limited basis,' he said.
The third step will be to consider appropriate amendments to, as well as the aligning of, the rules governing the family courts and the Court of Protection.
Munby stressed that it is not the judge's role to exercise any kind of editorial control over the way the media presents information it is entitled to publish.
'Comment and criticism may be ill-informed and biased,' he said, but fear of such criticism, 'however justified that fear may be, and however unjustified the criticism, is, however, not of itself a justification for prior restraint by the family court, even if the criticism is expressed in vigorous, trenchant or outspoken terms'.