Open justice and domestic abuse court hearings: now and under the bill

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A draft bill: domestic abuse hearings in 2019

 

On 21 January 2019 the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor published, to press acclaim (see eg Guardian and Observer) their joint Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse: Consultation Response and Draft Bill January 2019. The main features of the bill are:

  • A definition of ‘domestic abuse’ thus far absent from statute and the common law; and much wider and specific than before
  • A commissioner (‘tsar’ as the press call them?) who is to be funded by the government and be responsible for prevention of domestic abuse and for provision of support for those abused (Part 2)
  • New police powers and preventative notices and order (Part 3)
  • Protection by a court-appointed advocate for abuse by cross-examination of complainants (Part 4).

 

Hybrid procedural court powers

 

The bill’s powers can be exercised across a range of types of proceedings, civil (ie including family) and criminal. As at present drawn cl 27 enables the court to make domestic abuse orders (as defined by the bill). Clause 27 includes the following:

 

27 Domestic abuse protection orders otherwise than on application

Family proceedings

(2) The High Court [ie the Family Division] or the family court may make a domestic abuse protection order against a person (“P”) in any family proceedings to which both P and the person for whose protection the order would be made are parties.

Criminal proceedings

(3) Where a person (“P”) has been convicted of an offence, the court dealing with P for that offence may (as well as sentencing P or dealing with P in any other way) make a domestic abuse protection order against P….

(5) A court by or before which a person is acquitted of an offence may make a domestic abuse protection order against the person.

(6) Where the Crown Court allows a person’s appeal against conviction, the Crown Court may make a domestic abuse protection order against the person.

Civil proceedings

(7) The county court may make a domestic abuse protection order against a person (“P”) in any relevant proceedings [as defined by the Secretary of State] to which both P and the person for whose protection the order would be made are parties.

 

Application of the open justice principle: criminal court and Family Law Act 1996

 

An immediate question which arises in relation to the bill is whether all proceedings which involve allegations of domestic abuse should be heard in open court, as they will be if based on a criminal charge; or will they, as in family proceedings, be heard in secret (see Clibbery v Allan (below))? The privacy of family courts hearings is defined by Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) rr 10.5 (for domestic violence proceedings) and 27.10 (for the vast majority of other family proceedings covered by FPR 2010. The term the rule-makers use is ‘private’

 

It will be assumed that this question arises – now – in parallel criminal and family proceedings on the same facts. The accused (AA) and the main witness for the prosecution in criminal proceedings are the same as the respondent and alleged victim (ie applicant) in the family proceedings. The facts are the same in each set of proceedings.

 

As the law now stands almost all family proceedings injunctions, for non-molestation and occupation (of the party’ and their children’s former home) orders are dealt with under Family Law Act 1996 (FLA 1996) Part 4. (FLA 1996 Part 4 cases count as proceedings under FPR 2010.) It is said by FPR 2010 r 27.10 that all such cases are to be heard in ‘private’.

 

By contrast criminal proceedings will be heard by magistrates or a jury in open court. The hearing in family proceedings – judging by the rules, is to be in secret (or ‘private’). That is said to be the law, now (see eg Transparency in the family courts by Doughty et al (2018)). At Transparency para 2.148 seems to accept without question what FPR 2010 rr 10.5 and 27.10 says, without any reflection on the powers (vires) of Family Procedure Rules Committee who made those rules.

 

The assumptions on which the Transparency book is based are unlikely to represent the law, despite what the rules say. Unless children are involved, there seems no logic in saying that in one court on the same facts a defendant should be tried in open court; but that in proceedings under family law rules any trial should be secret. Logic or not, the law also denies that domestic abuse proceedings should, as a default proposition, be heard in secret.

 

Open justice: a common law principle

 

What is to be heard in open court is defined by the common law, probably going back to medieval times, certainly to the period immediately after the Puritan Revolution. This is explained by the House of Lords in Scott & Anor v Scott [1913] UKHL 2, [1913] AC 417. Secrecy – hearings in ‘chambers’ – was guaranteed then only for children proceedings, for hearings concerning ‘lunatics’ and where publicity of hearing might destroy the point of the trial (eg for patents). Scott was a family case; but one – nullity – where their Lordships seemed astonished that anyone could contemplate a hearing other than in public.

 

The common law can only be changed by a higher court decision, or by Act of Parliament. The open justice principle has been immune to date from statutory intervention.

 

However, things have moved on since Scott: national security and confidential information of a party has been added. The common law secrecy/privacy list is best summarised now by CPR 1998 r 39.2(3) which is as follows:

 

General rule – hearing to be in public

(3) A hearing, or any part of it, may be in private if –

(a) publicity would defeat the object of the hearing;

(b) it involves matters relating to national security;

(c) it involves confidential information (including information relating to personal financial matters) and publicity would damage that confidentiality;

(d) a private hearing is necessary to protect the interests of any child or protected party;

(e) it is a hearing of an application made without notice and it would be unjust to any respondent for there to be a public hearing;

(f) [not relevant]; or

(g) the court considers this to be necessary, in the interests of justice.

 

This list is reproduced almost word-for-word in relation to open court divorce etc hearings (FPR 2010 r 7.16(3); so the FPR 2010 rule-makers are well aware of CPR 1998 r 39.2(3).

 

A court rule cannot create law

 

The next legal principle has been described as ‘trite’ law – ie obvious (see eg Jaffray v The Society of Lloyds [2007] EWCA Civ 586, [2008] 1 WLR 75 referring to British South Africa Co v Companhia de Mocambique [1893] AC 602 per Lord Herschell LC at 628). It is that a rule cannot create or change the law (unless Parliament says). This was explained by Lady Hale in Dunhill v Burgin (Nos 1 and 2) [2014] UKSC 18, [2014] 1 WLR 933 as follows:

 

[27] Neither the Rules of the Supreme Court nor the Civil Procedure Rules can change the substantive law unless expressly permitted so to do by statute: see Re Grosvenor Hotel Ltd (No 2) [1965] Ch 1210 [per Lord Denning MR].

 

Rules exist only to regulate the law, save where Parliament says a rule can change a law. FPR 2010 are made under powers given to Family Procedure Rules Committee under Courts Act 2003 ss 75-76; and I can see no power to create law there (only in one case to ‘modify’ rules of evidence).

 

So what is the position in law of hearings under FLA 1996 Part 4? As it happens a frequently cited case – Clibbery v Allan [2002] EWCA Civ 45, [200] Fam 261, [2002] 1 FLR 565 – relates entirely to the 1996 Act. It was decided after introduction of CPR 1998 (which does not apply directly to family proceedings: CPR 1998 r 2.1(2)) but before FPRC made FPR 2010. The case defines the common law (ie judge-made law) for family proceedings of this type.

 

Clibbery v Allan: open court and domestic abuse in 2019

 

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss P said of the terms in issue in Clibbery:

 

[19] … I am driven to recall Humpty Dumpty: ‘When I use a word – it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

[20]   I would therefore suggest that there are three categories of case, those heard in open court, those heard in private and those heard in secret where the information disclosed to the court and the proceedings remain confidential.

 

Dame Elizabeth and Thorpe and Keene LJJ, held that FLA 1996 Part 4 hearings were to be held in ‘private’ (which they explained as open court, but with limited space for those attending court: see eg Hodgson v Imperial Tobacco Ltd [1998] 1 WLR 1056, CA); and that Ms Clibbery could not be prevented from handing over papers from the case to the press. That remains the law today; and it cannot be changed by FPRC and their FPR 2010.

 

What Dame Elizabeth held in Clibbery also explains by my use of the word ‘secret’ for private hearings. The rules say ‘private’. They mean, in terms of Clibbery ‘secret’; and that can only be changed by statute, or decision of a court higher than the Court of Appeal, namely the Supreme Court.

 

The bill is silent – so far – on the issue of open court injunction hearings (as far as I can see). Should it remain a matter for the common law, or should the authors of the bill be encouraged to be clear on the point? The open court principle is so much a creature of common law: I would leave it to the judges. And, till the bill is on the statute book, as I understand the law, FLA 1996 Pt 4 hearings should be in open court subject to any of the exceptions summarised by the list in CPR 1998 r 39.2(3).

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4 thoughts on “Open justice and domestic abuse court hearings: now and under the bill

  1. Concerning your comments re Transparency in the family courts by Doughty et al (2018)). In fact the footnote to para 2.148 specifically flags up the possible objection to the vires of the rules – by reference to posts on this blog. What would be helpful would be a court decision expressly considering the point or proceeding on that basis.

  2. I agree: it needs a claimant to assert to a family judge that the rules appear to be wrong, and that the common law is [as above]; or a judge like Munby P (as was) who says we’re in open court for this FLA 1996 Pt 4 application. I don’t suppose Holman J often deals with domestic abuse cases: he’d be one to consider a common law based approach, assuming anonymisation of any children, and any necessary protection for the complainant and other witnesses

  3. You assert that in our book we accept the vires of the FPR ‘without question’. In fact, in a footnote to the paragraph you reference we explicitly flag the controversy on this point and direct interested readers to your writing on the topic. What we actually say, having flagged the issue is that for the purposes of this practitioners’ text book, ‘we proceed on the assumption that the rules are ‘vires’’, an approach which we stand by.

    Whilst commenting, we cannot see any reference in the recently published consultation response / draft bill, to a proposal to revoke Pt IV FLA 1996, and think this must be an error.

    Julie Doughty, Paul Magrath, Lucy Reed (authors of the book referred to).

    • Indeed that is what you say; but in a practitioner’s book – where the controversy has been raised – just to brush of the rules as ‘intra vires’ (ie within the powers of the rule-makers) is a little stark. It is precisely us ‘practitioners’ who must be prepared to challenge ‘public bodies’ and – as lawyers, who are expected to operate the law – to advise that the law (not rules) say things should be done differently. (Do you slightly suggest that ‘practitioners’ books aren’t proper law books; or even that ‘practitioners’ don’t understand these things?)

      What happens if the common law says one thing (eg per Clibbery v A) and the rules say another? I say what I think is the answer to that in the post. And if the rules may be unlawful, is that not a question (answered as to documents by Ms Clibbery) – which needs examination? After all, that’s why the likes of thee and me write books: to tell people what we think the law is; and sometimes to say what it may be. Imagine a party trying to overturn a domestic abuse order because he – most likely to be a man – had been tried in secret (as Butler Sloss P calls it) when his case – he says – should have been in open court? Not good for his former cohabitant….

      I agree on the FLA 1996 Pt 4 point and will amend; though the silence in the bill on a revocations Schedule is odd…

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