The most senior family judge in England and Wales has demanded more transparency in the courts after rejecting social workers’ attempts to silence a father whose baby was taken into care against his will.
Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, said the public had a right to know “what is being done in their name” and called for the courts to adapt to the internet era Photo: BRIAN SMITH FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, said the public had a right to know “what is being done in their name” and called for the courts to adapt to the internet era.
Giving his ruling on a county council’s legal bid to ban the father publishing highly critical material about its social services department, the judge said the “glare of publicity” was essential to avoid miscarriages of justice.
It comes after widespread concern about secrecy in the family courts – which usually hold hearings in private – and a separate court, known as the Court of Protection, which deals with life-or-death decisions about patient treatment.
Sir James said: “There is a pressing need for more transparency, indeed for much more transparency, in the family justice system.
“There are a number of aspects to this. One is the right of the public to know, the need for the public to be confronted with what is being done in its name.
“Nowhere is this more necessary than in relation to care and adoption cases. Such cases, by definition, involve interference, intrusion, by the state, by local authorities and by the court, into family life.
“In this context the arguments in favour of publicity – in favour of openness, public scrutiny and public accountability – are particularly compelling.”
He added: “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.
“The remedy, even if it is probably doomed to only partial success, is … more transparency. Putting it bluntly, letting the glare of publicity into the family courts.”
Sir James ruled on a case involving Staffordshire County Council and a baby, who can only be identified as ‘J’, who was born earlier this year.
The court heard the infant was made the subject of an emergency protection order on the day of its birth and taken into care.
The father posted material about social workers on the internet, some of which was abusive, and announced the child’s birth on Facebook, the social networking site.
He also posted footage on Facebook and YouTube of social workers taking the child into care under an emergency protection order – and the child was named, said the judge.
Sir James said the council applied for an order which would prevent the publication of the child’s name, address and image.
The judge made an order banning the naming of the child, but refused to ban the publication of images.
The judge said his decision was intended to protect the child from identification while allowing a “public debate” to take place about the “operation of the care system”.
In his ruling, Sir James said that even “unjustified” criticism did not provide a reason for the courts to silence someone’s views.
“The 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 injunction … even if the criticism is expressed in vigorous, trenchant or outspoken terms,” he said.
The judge said the way the internet allowed easy access to information that was sometimes sensitive in nature posed “enormous challenges”. “The law must develop and adapt, as it always has done down the years in response to other revolutionary technologies,” he said.
“We must not simply throw up our hands in despair and moan that the internet is uncontrollable. Nor can we simply abandon basic legal principles.”
In July, Sir James published guidelines setting out how thousands more court judgments in care and adoption cases should be made public.
Councils have been criticised for using similar legal methods inappropriately in the past.
In 2008 a senior judge said East Sussex County Council was guilty of a “wholly unacceptable abuse of power” for rushing through the adoption of an 18 month-old child and blocking a challenge by the child’s natural father.
SOURCE: The Telegraph