Family court judges give evidence to Parliament

Munby J calls for greater openness

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss P, Wall LJ and Munby J have been giving evidence to a Constitutional Affairs Select Committee about the operation of the Family Courts.

The primary question on which the Committee sought evidence from the judges was why ‘the levels of recorded dissatisfaction amongst court users [were] much higher in relation to family courts in disputed contact cases than they are generally’?

Munby J’s response was that ‘public perceptions are very much driven by the highly vocal views of [a] comparatively limited number of people in a situation where public perceptions are hindered by the fact that we sit in private and that proceedings are not open to the public, there are stringent reporting restrictions and the media has no access to the family courts’.  He elaborated on this view later in the examination: ‘I personally would take a rather more open view.  The fact is…that the family justice system is under criticism today because it is perceived as being a secret justice system, and in that sense we are crippling public debate…I do not think that the existing system, the existing rules, are necessary.  That is not to say we simply open the doors to everything but I think we could do more to open up the system’.

Butler-Sloss P did not endorse Munby J’s view – indeed at Q46 she appears to be in favour of the current presumption of ‘secrecy’ in ‘fraught family cases’ – but agreed that it was ‘well worth considering’.

Otherwise, the President accepted that any rule of the Family Court which prevented a litigant from raising any concern he or she might have about the proceedings with their MP should not be maintained.  She observed that there was a clause in the Children’s Bill addressing ‘the problem of r. 4.23 of the Family Procedure Rules’ which had been found to have this effect.  

The Committee asked Dame Elizabeth to consider submitting to it a short paper on the points that had raised about openness in and access to the Family Court.

To read an uncorrected transcript of the oral evidence the Judges gave to the Select Committee, click here.