One of England’s most senior judges has pledged to expose family courts to the “glare of publicity” to avoid miscarriages of justice and restore public confidence.
Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, said parents of children taken into care must no longer be gagged by the courts and journalists should be allowed to report on proceedings.
He said that in the absence of the death penalty, removing a child from their parents is one of the most “drastic” actions a judge can take consequences that can last a lifetime.
In a speech to the Society of Editors in London, he said that judges must accept that “human justice is inevitably fallible” and mistakes are made.
He said that both the family courts, which deal with divorce cases and adoption, and the Court of Protection, which deals with decisions about people who lack the mental capacity to make their own decisions, must be more transparent.
Sir James said he wants to make the courts “open to the world”. He said: “It must never be forgotten that orders of the kind that family judges are invited to make in public law proceedings are amongst the most drastic that any judge is empowered to make.
“We strive to avoid miscarriages of justice, but human justice is inevitably fallible. We must have the humility to recognise that public debate, and the jealous vigilance of an informed media, have an important part to play.
“It is vitally important, if the administration of justice is to be promoted and public confidence in the courts maintained, that justice be administered in public.”
His comments come after controversy over a series of cases where the names of social workers, expert witnesses and councils are kept secret. Parents who have their children taken away from them have also been subject to draconian “gagging” orders.
Sir James said that parents should be free to speak out. He said: “It is important in a free society that parents who feel aggrieved at their experiences of the family justice system should be able to express their views publicly about what they conceive to be the failings on the part of individual judges or failings in the judicial system. And the same goes, of course, for criticism of local authorities and others.”
He said judges should be prepared to accept criticism of their decisions. “If there is no basis for injuncting a story expressed in the temperate or scholarly language of a legal periodical or the broadsheet press, there can be no basis for injuncting the same story just because it is expressed in the more robust, colourful or intemperate language of the tabloid press or even in language which is crude, insulting and vulgar.
“A much more robust view must be taken today than previously of what ought rightly to be allowed to pass as permissible criticism. Society is more tolerant today of strong or even offensive language.”
Under a series of reforms, Sir James plans to make judgments available to the public and to open up the courts to reporters. Journalists could be given greater access to court documents.
He said: “We must be open to the world – much more open than at present – in what we do both in the family courts and the Courts of Protection.”