Upgrade to ChromeUpgrade to FirefoxUpgrade to Internet ExplorerUpgrade to Safari

Will more open family courts lead to transparent justice or privacy invasion?

Ever wondered why, when it comes to the break-up of Hollywood celebrity couples, that we get to hear every cough and spit, every allegation and counter allegation, every salacious detail of their often acrimonious parting of the ways?

Take Johnny Depp and Amber Heard for example. Married for just 15 months, Miss Heard filed for divorce on the basis of ‘irreconcilable differences’ in May, alleged abuse and gained a temporary restraining order against Depp which she is still apparently trying to get made permanent.

In retaliation, his friends and family have leapt to his defence claiming Amber is no more than a gold digging fantasist.

And the reason we know all of this, can read so much about it in our newspapers and online, is because family proceedings in California are public proceedings, except in some very limited circumstances.

So does open court inevitably lead to media frenzy and intrusive reporting? Or does holding family law proceedings in a closed court sometimes lead to secrecy rather than legitimate privacy? Here in the UK we are currently trying to find the balance.

A move for more transparency in the UK

In an effort to address secrecy concerns and a public call for greater transparency in family law proceedings, new rules were introduced in 2010 allowing certain journalists to request attendance on the basis they would only be reporting on the issues of the case as opposed to the specific individuals involved.

And earlier this year it was decided this would be extended, in a pilot scheme, to the Court of Protection.

Sir James Munby, the most senior Court of Protection judge in England and Wales and President of the Family Division of the High Court, says the launch of the pilot scheme is a logical step.

“For the last six years, accredited media have been able to attend family court cases and have been better informed about the work of the family court as a result,” he said.

“It is logical to look at extending this greater transparency to the court of protection, provided the right balance can be struck to safeguard the privacy of people who lack capacity to make their own decisions.”

Avoiding secrecy

Sir James Munby, who is president of the family division of the high court and of the court of protection, has been pushing for greater transparency in the way courts operate since 2014, instructing judges that in many cases the starting point should be to give permission for publication, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so with the aim of ensuring more details emerge of some sensitive domestic disputes, albeit often anonymised.

Munby said the guidance was intended to bring about “an immediate and significant change in practice in relation to the publication of judgments”.

He said: “In both courts there is a need for greater transparency in order to improve public understanding of the court process and confidence in the court system. At present too few judgments are made available to the public, which has a legitimate interest in being able to read what is being done by the judges in its name. The guidance will have the effect of increasing the number of judgments available for publication.”

Only time will tell as to whether Munby’s visions becomes a reality, but it is questionable as to whether there truly is any benefit in having people’s personal lives being splashed across the tabloids. Do we really want Big Brother watching?

  • For advice on family, divorce and relationship breakdown matters as well as issues regarding children and finances, please contact Wards Solicitors Family Law Team or pop in to your local office

Get in Touch

Request a call back

If you’d prefer us to call you back, just use the form below to give us your number and the best time to call. It would also be useful if you could give us some idea of what you’d like to discuss.