Posted by Patrick Hart, Partner
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New plan to increase transparency in family courts
Crucial steps towards ending secrecy in the family courts have been set out by a leading judge as he published proposals to open cases to the public for the first time.
Sir James Munby, president of the High Court’s family division, recently announced that he was seeking “preliminary views” on allowing the public to attend divorces and other types of case involving family matters such as child custody hearings.
The judge said opening the courts was a key part of his “transparency agenda” which aims to open the court’s often controversial work to greater public scrutiny.
He also proposed a number of measures designed to make it easier for the press to report on family hearings, including giving access to case summaries and other documents.
“The public has a legitimate interest in being able to read what is being done by the judges in its name,” said Sir James.
The family courts have seen a number of controversies over decisions being taken in secret. Last December the Telegraph disclosed how Alessandra Pacchieri, an Italian who suffers from a bipolar condition, was taken into hospital while visiting England and sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
In a hearing which took place behind closed doors at the Court of Protection, a judge granted permission for doctors to forcibly remove her unborn child, a girl, who was put into foster care almost immediately.
Miss Pacchieri’s case was later described by Sir James as a “final, stark and irrefutable demonstration of the pressing need for radical changes” in the family courts and the Court of Protection.
Earlier in 2013 it had emerged that Wanda Maddocks, 50, was jailed “in secret” for contempt for disobeying court orders relating to care for her 80-year-old father, who was suffering from dementia.
In the new proposals from Sir James, he said: “I am seeking preliminary, pre-consultation views about the possible hearing in public of certain types of family case. I am likely to propose that if the matter proceeds at all, it will initially be by way of a pilot.”
He asked for views on which types of family case might be appropriate for public hearings, what “restrictions and safeguards” would be required and what form a pilot scheme might take. Granting the media the right to obtain copies of certain types of documents would “assist them in performing their watchdog role”, he added.
Key words might also be added to case numbers to assist reporters in identifying important cases, Sir James added.
Currently, family cases are listed in court only by an alpha-numeric code which conveys no detail about what the case is about.
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