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Munby: media access to court documents is essential

Public has legitimate interest in how family courts' exercise power, says senior family judge

14 November 2013

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Family court and Court of Protection proceedings should be much more open, the president of the Family Division told journalists this week as he outlined plans to update the framework for the reporting of court proceedings.

"The first step will be the introduction, later this year, of the final version of the Practice Guidance: Transparency in the Family Courts and the Court of Protection - Publication of Judgments,” said Sir James Munby (pictured), speaking at the Society of Editors annual conference.

The next step would be considering practical ways reporters can get hold of some court papers, although there were still questions about which documents, in what format and safeguarding.

"I am confident that we will be able to make progress, even if initially on a cautious and limited basis," he said.

Revising and aligning the family court and Court of Protection rules about media attendance at hearings was a third step, but this would take time.

Sir James said although his comments were not new, he was "very concerned about the need for more transparency" and the matters are "so important that they bear constant repetition".

"The family lawyer's reaction to complaints of 'secret justice' tends to be that the charge is unfair, that it confuses a system which is private with one which is secret. The semantic point is, I fear, more attractive to lawyers than others…

"The remedy, even if it is probably doomed to only partial success, is - it must be - more transparency; putting it bluntly, letting the glare of publicity into the family courts."

He added that the public's compelling need for transparency was an issue of both pragmatism and principle.

"We must have the humility to recognise - and to acknowledge - that public debate, and the jealous vigilance of an informed media, have an important role to play in exposing past miscarriages of justice and in preventing possible future miscarriages of justice," he said.

"It is vital that public confidence in the family justice system is maintained or, if eroded, restored."

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Marriage & Civil partnership