“Family Court should be less secretive”: Senior judge calls on a’major cultural shift’ to allow public scrutiny of the system.

  • Journalists are allowed to attend hearings but it is against the law for them to report the evidence.
  • Sir Andrew McFarlane said lack of transparency in courts risks public confidence
  • He has suggested greater access to hearings, documents, and other information for journalists

The most senior family judge stated yesterday that a’major shift of culture’ is needed to make the Family Court’s workings more transparent.

Sir Andrew McFarlane noted that the current rules do not permit effective public scrutiny. There has also been ‘legitimate media concern’ and concern about the operation of the courts.

Family courts make important decisions about adoptions and divorces. Journalists are limited in reporting on court hearings.

Sir Andrew, president of the Family Division of the High Court, said the lack of public scrutiny means that families have little understanding of how the courts operate, and potential mistakes – including ‘significant judicial errors’ – only come to light if cases are taken to the Court of Appeal.

He conducted a two year review of transparency in family court courts and concluded that it was ‘unsatisfactory,’ and could damage public confidence.

Sir Andrew stated: “The public has a legitimate right to understand how the court approaches these really significant decisions.”

Sir Andrew McFarlane (pictured), president of the Family Division of the High Court, said the lack of public scrutiny means that families have little understanding of how the courts operate

Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division at the High Court (pictured), said that families don’t understand how the courts work because of the lack of public scrutiny

“There is no more drastic decision than to take someone’s child away permanently or to send them off for adoption.

Family courts in England or Wales decide thousands of cases every year. Sir Andrew said that they were now called upon for complex cases involving surrogacy and female genital abuse, forced marriage, transgender right and domestic abuse. However, the rules that govern the reporting of such cases are largely unchanged over the decades.

Sir Andrew stated that while the majority of senior judges and ministers have supported transparency, Sir Andrew said that the pace of change has been ‘glacial’.

He proposed greater access for journalists and bloggers to hearings, documents, and a change of court rules that would allow them to report proceedings unless they are told otherwise by a judge.

The current rules allow journalists to attend hearings. But, unless a judge approves a request, it is illegal to report the evidence.

Sir Andrew stated that parents should have more freedom to alert journalists about cases of concern without fear of breaking any court rules. There had been a drip-drip’ of concerning stories involving parents, victims of domestic abuse, and their treatment at the Family Court.

The judge stated that courts sitting in privacy would ‘inevitably lead to a loss or confidence in the public and a perception of there being something to hide’.

He stated in his report: “The level of legitimate media concern and public concern over the Family Court’s workings is now such that it seems necessary for the court consider openness the new norm.”

“There must be a major cultural shift and a process to increase transparency in the system. The current system is too opaque to allow effective public scrutiny.

Sir Andrew said some key information about cases involving children would need to remain secret to ensure they remained anonymous – as usually happens at present.

Ministers will need to endorse his proposals, but he stated that he hopes a pilot scheme could still be implemented in some courts with no legislation.