There’s no such thing as a secret family court

litigants in person

I wrote about the case of Leicester City Council v Chhatbar & Another, decided by Mr Justice Mostyn, in a post here a couple of days ago. What I did not mention then were Mr Justice Mostyn’s comments in the second paragraph of his judgment.

He began with the simple statement:

“The family courts are not ‘secret courts’.”

Well, someone has got to counter the tide of misinformed people who will tell you that they are. By way of explanation, he continued:

“Since 27 April 2009, almost four years ago, the press has had full access to all family proceedings (apart from adoption and placement proceedings, proceedings under s54 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, and judicial mediations in financial proceedings). Further, there is now a drive to report on the Bailii website all judgments concerning the state protection of children and vulnerable adults (see Practice Guidance (Transparency in the Family Courts) [2014] EWHC B3 (Fam)). These measures are designed to ensure that by virtue of a combination of fair and accurate press reporting, and public access to the Bailii website, the public can learn about the arguments which are advanced and what is being done by the judges in their name.”

I would go much further. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, there never has been a secret family court, at least not in the modern era. ‘Secret’ implies two things: that we are not told what they are doing, and that the reason for not telling us is that the courts do not want us to know what they are doing.

On both counts, the family courts cannot be called ‘secret’.

Firstly, we do know what they are doing. The family courts are not like some rule-less medieval court where the parties are subject to the whim of an all-powerful judge. They do not dispense ‘secret justice’ – we know exactly what they do, whether it be making a care order, granting residence to one parent or ordering one party to pay maintenance for the other.

Everything that the family courts do is subject to the law, whether it be statute, rules or previous precedents. If you don’t like what the courts do, don’t blame the courts, blame the law.

As to the reason why family courts are not as open as other courts, this has nothing to do with trying to hide what they do, as some conspiracy theorists would have you think. It is almost always, quite simply, to protect the children involved. Obviously, it is highly likely to be harmful to a child if details of court proceedings relating to their family circumstances become public knowledge.

It has, of course, recently been acknowledged that the courts may in the past have been a little too eager to protect children, and this is reflected in recent developments such as those referred to by Mr Justice Mostyn. So, whereas before there might have been a blanket ban on reporting a case, now reporting may be allowed, subject to certain safeguards, such as ensuring the anonymity of the parties and the children.

As Mr Justice Mostyn said, it is hoped that this increased openness will lead to the public understanding better why the family courts make the decisions that they do (and no, I am not saying that they always make the ‘right’ decisions). But this does depend upon accurate reporting by the media, as few members of the public are likely to read the law reports. At the end of his judgment Mr Justice Mostyn mentioned a report of the case in a certain national newspaper which said that the family had fled the country:

“…after a relative made an allegation to Leicester city council social services that Mr Chhatbar had a violent past. It is a claim the couple vigorously deny, but social workers warned them to split up so [the child] could live with [the mother] in safety or else they would seize the baby.”

As Mr Justice Mostyn pointed out, the report failed to mention that Mr Chhatbar had been convicted for an offence of domestic violence.

Clearly, there is no point in demanding openness from the courts if you are not going to report accurately what they do. The simple fact is that the family courts are not ‘secret’, and it is now easier than ever to see what they do. Failing to report that accurately is a disservice not just to those who work in the family justice system, but also to the public generally.

Photo of county court door by Elliott Brown under a Creative Commons licence

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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4 comments

Paul - March 26, 2014 at 6:43pm

The plain fact is, John, that “cut and paste” magistrates have been caught red-handed rubber stamping adoption orders for child-snatching social services departments. And they have blithely done so recognising that their grubby little ways would never see the light of day – certainly the details of their reliance on a paucity of reliable evidence. Munby has moved the goal posts a fraction to reveal a chink but the truth fully revealed would predictably yield a chamber full of like horror stories. The full story of UK family injustice will never be revealed while judges remain entitled to withhold on publication of their hearings. Why for example has the Interim Adoption Order hearing in the Italian mother case never been made public despite the prior (forced caesarian) and subsequent (final adoption order) hearings having already been published? No answers required. The details will never come out because it was yet another rubber-stamp job and the judge concerned is too embarrassed to let the details out. The system remains insufficiently transparent and the continuing secrecy protects all the wrong people.

Caz - March 26, 2014 at 10:21pm

I and my family are a victim of the secret Family Court system and if I speak honestly I can not fault the judges that dealt with the case, nor the judges at the High Court of Appeal, (except for the fact the missing false childs name that the case was done) contrary to the rule of Law in setting down of the childs name, my grandsons birth certified name, the false name in which the hospital refused to obey orders made by a judge to release the childs medical file, stating they did not have one in the name stated, I do feel the end to Split cases has brought light and an end to a draconian system that I can only describe as witch dipping of parents and family and allowed Judgements to be published and brought a bit of light into these courts

Caz - March 28, 2014 at 1:38pm

May I also add, Published judgements on Bailii site being annonymous to conceal the childs name did not help in our case, especially when the name it was judged in (which I have evidence of by the accommpaying Court Of Appeal Certificate whereby the split case was joined, and the childs name is not the name of my Grandchild, never ever has been, and accussed of injuries he had never ever had) The concealment of the name judged in, allowed the Local Authority to illegally change the name stated back to his birth certified name, split the joined case, and go on to have my Grandchild adopted illegally.
In my mind this is contempt of Court but there is no one policing these illegal acts

Julie - April 1, 2014 at 8:36pm

Thanks John for this very clear refutation. I agree that these court proceedings are not ‘secret’. However, isn’t there a problem if the President constantly refers to this perception? Reading the cases is one thing but reading Christopher Booker and the Daily Mail is another, which he seems to accept.

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