Domestic abuse and secret courts

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Why not open court for all domestic abuse hearings


This post is written in the light of the recent JH v MF [2020] EWHC 86 (Fam) (22 January 2020), Russell J (where the judge was highly critical of a family courts judge and his approach to lack of consent of a young mother to sexual intercourse in a domestic abuse trial). Others have written about various aspects of this case (eg Suesspiciousminds at ‘Bad feng shui and bad judgment’ and Civil Litigation Brief at ‘A decision that was “unjust because of serious procedural irregularity and multiple errors of law”: when decisions are not based on the evidence’ I intend to concentrate on open court – or ‘transparency’ – aspects of domestic abuse court hearings.


The question which arises from Judge Tolson’s behaviour relates directly to how domestic abuse cases are dealt with by all common law courts (not just family courts) in the future. The question becomes much more than one of ‘transparency’ (which in reality is a euphemism for how far secrecy is permitted in any court). For a variety of reasons (see also my ) it is important to be clear how abuse allegations are dealt with in the variety of courts which may be dealing with them.


We must now be asking of judges like Judge Tolson (who tried the JH v MF domestic abuse case at first instance) when they operate in secret: why we are surprised that some judges behave so badly; and, as in this case, why do they project an early 20th century – even 19th century – approach to rape and sexual offences? And – it must be added – Judge Tolson is not the first family judge I can point to who, over the past year, has taken judicial steps which are unlawful and who should properly be supervised by press and other lawyers if our family law system is to preserve any form of credibility.


And how many men (it will mostly be men) will go on acting again and again (with different partners) in a way which is abusive, if they know they will always be dealt with in secret by family courts?


Domestic abuse: which court, what procedure?


This leads to the question: how does our domestic abuse law and procedure apply on the same facts to three completely separate areas of law:


  • A possible criminal trial prosecuted by the police (open court: jury in the crown court)
  • Damages proceedings in the civil courts (open court)
  • Domestic abuse proceedings in the family courts (secret)


It must be recalled that the third of these – the domestic abuse in the family courts – might also be tied up also with private court children proceedings (as was JH v MF). And I cannot see that our legislators have done anything to try to put this procedural jungle right in the two – so far abandoned – domestic abuse bills which Parliament have started on since early 2017. (When I was first in practice the only way to get a domestic abuse (as it then wasn’t called) injunction for an unmarried partner was on the tort of assault (ie (2) above); but have we really come that far in those 40+ years?)


In 2020 all civil courts, including family courts, are familiar with the concept of separate trial of one or more issues. Domestic abuse is a separate issue from (say) what is to happen to children. There is no reason to try issues of domestic abuse at the same time as dealing with the welfare of children. For example, though in JH v MF the issues of domestic abuse arose in the context of a father’s claim concerning his child, there is no reason why the judge should not have dealt with domestic abuse as a separate matter, set down for a separate hearing.


From there it would be a short step to say liability in tort ((2) above: the harassment or assault damages claim) should be put over to another day for damages to be decided in open court (save if children are directly involved), and based on the findings of the preliminary hearing.


How a criminal trial can be dealt with is more difficult since the procedures in criminal courts – all this has to be dealt with now under three separate sets of procedural rules – are so different from those in civil (and family, where different) courts. Most starkly, the standard of proof (considered for domestic abuse family proceedings by Russell J at [55]-[58]) between civil and criminal, is different. This must be the subject of a separate post.


But on a post for ‘Transparency Project’ the question arises: if the issue of domestic abuse is – as it must surely be – dealt with as an issue separate from other family matters (such as children), why cannot it be dealt with entirely as a discrete or separate trial.? That trial can be – must be, surely? – in open court, as with any criminal aspect of the case. There is no reason at common law (see eg Scott & Anor v Scott [1913] UKHL 2, [1913] AC 417) why it may not be. (It is accepted that in a family court the media could be present even though the hearing was in secret (Family Procedure Rules 2010 r 27.11(2)(f)); but that misses the point. It does not make the hearing public as understood by the common law and as happens in all other courts concerned on the facts alleged.)


Open court hearings


The main case – still frequently referred to – on open court hearings is a family case namely Scott (above). In that case, over 100 years ago, the House of Lords (judicial branch) said that all cases, except for a very narrow number of examples (including children cases) must be in open court. Why? Because it is important – and this is still the law today – that people be able to see and hear (if they wish) what is being done by judges in their name. This is so – subject to a few very narrow exceptions (which might include the vulnerability of a witness of party: though in open court their evidence could be by video-link) – even if a trial might cause embarrassment.


In Scott v Scott Lord Atkinson (one of the five judges) said:


The hearing of a case in public may be, and often is, no doubt, painful, humiliating, or deterrent both to parties and witnesses, and in many cases, especially those of a criminal nature, the details may be so indecent as to tend to injure public morals, but all this is tolerated and endured, because it is felt that in public trial is to found, on the whole, the best security for the pure, impartial, and efficient administration of justice, the best means for winning for it public confidence and respect.


Scott was a case about nullity of marriage on grounds of non-consummation. It was up there in terms of embarrassment; but still, in 1913, it should be public (though would not be today). The point is, to balance any humiliation with the public good of trials being open. Open trial must normally take priority. And, given that on the same facts, a case will be heard in public if for damages and criminal, but in private if on the application of a complainant. Where is the logic of that?


And if Judge Tolson had not sat in secret, it is important to reflect that his decision might have been different (though publicity did not deter him from brushing off Mrs Owens’s complaints as to her husband’s alleged behaviour: Owens v Owens [2018] UKSC 41, [2018] AC 899, [2018] 2 FLR 1067 when it ended in the Supreme Court). An open court hearing might have encouraged him to ensure disposal in accordance with Lord Atkinson’s ‘pure, impartial, and efficient administration of justice’? Who knows?…


Now is the time, surely – especially with a domestic abuse bill somewhere in the offing – to challenge the question of where and how openly domestic abuse cases are to be tried?


David Burrows

23 January 2020



Open justice: family law developments in 2019


A common law principle


It is well-known that Civil Procedure Act 1997 and the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 made under that Act ghettoised family proceedings, with effect – eventually – from April 2011 when Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) were finally made. From then civil proceedings rules (as had hitherto been the case: Rules of the Supreme Court 1965 etc) ceased directly to apply to family proceedings. The law which governs all proceedings is the common law; but procedure fissiparates increasingly as time goes on.


Eminent amongst common law principles is open justice rules, briefly, elegantly and authoritatively defined by Toulson LJ in R (Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2012] EWCA Civ 420, [2013] QB 618:


“[69] The open justice principle is a constitutional principle to be found not in a written text but in the common law. It is for the courts to determine its requirements, subject to any statutory provision. It follows that the courts have an inherent jurisdiction to determine how the principle should be applied.”


So – over the past twelve months – how has the common law been considered and developed in the area of open justice, in family proceedings and in other common law cases which apply to family law? The subject is not just a question of saying a hearing will be ‘in private’ (FPR 2010 r 27.10) or not (see eg FPR 2010 r 30.12A). It encompasses also such subjects as:


  • Release of court material before, during and after a hearing
  • Anonymity of parties and witnesses
  • Reporting restrictions and publication of law reports and of what happens in courts


Court material


The high point of open justice litigation in 2019 is the Supreme Court decision in Cape Intermediate Holdings Ltd v Dring (Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK) [2019] UKSC 38, [2019] 3 WLR 429 where Mr Dring, on behalf of asbestosis victims (not parties to the litigation), sought release of documents in a case which concerned asbestos and which had been settled. A High Court master made a wide release order. The Court of Appeal narrowed this order; and against cross appeals by both parties the Supreme Court upheld the appeal order. The position defined by the Supreme Court is significant on release of court materials (and see this) from all forms of court proceedings (civil, family, criminal etc).


The Supreme Court examined to what extent can any court in its inherent jurisdiction and under CPR 1998 r 5.4C (or principles derived from that rule in non-CPR 1998 jurisdictions) direct release of court material to a non-party. Giving further Supreme Court impetus to Guardian v Westminster (above) it was held that the following material can be released by order of a court:


  • skeleton arguments and other written submissions (Cape Intermediate in CA at [69]; GIO Personal Investment Services Ltd v Liverpool and London Steamship Protection [1999] 1 WLR 984);
  • documents the judge has read or has been asked to read in court or in a skeleton argument (Lilly Icos v Pfizer Ltd [2002] EWCA Civ 2, [2002] 1 WLR 2253; and see CPR 1998 r 31.22);
  • witness statements ‘during the course of the trial’ (CPR 1998 r 32.13) including experts reports, but not exhibits to these; and
  • any other document which it is necessary for the court to release to comply with the open justice principle.


The significance of this for family lawyers is that the Supreme Court emphasised that these principles apply to all proceedings regulated by the common law, which includes family proceedings. Certain redactions and anonymisation – for example children’s, and maybe certain parties’, names – but application can still be made within the terms of Cape Intermediate v Dring.


On release of court material generally see here. A lot remains to be done to help those attending court to make sense of hearings and if they are to be properly said to be open court hearings (as Lord Scarman pointed out nearly forty years ago in Harman v Secretary of State for the Home Department [1983] 1 AC 280, [1982] 2 WLR 338). But that is another case, another day…




Anonymity is a crucial aspect of the open justice principle (see for example, PJS v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2016] UKSC 26, [2016] AC 1081, [2016] 2 FLR 251 and Khuja v Times Newspapers Ltd [2017] UKSC 49, [2017] 3 WLR 351); but the principles on which it is based in first instance family proceedings – and as the law now stands – is difficult to define, outside children proceedings. For example in CB v KB [2019] EWFC 78 (20 December 2019), Mostyn J the parties were accorded anonymity; but I am told it is not difficult to identify the pop-singer from the description provided on the back-ground to the formation of his group set out by Mostyn J in [6] and [7] of his judgment. In a recent children’s case, anonymisation extended only so far as to move by one letter of the alphabet all the parties’ initials; so if initials would identify them the judge’s anonymisation was limited.


On anonymity generally, the position in the Court of Appeal is clear (Norman v Norman [2017] EWCA Civ 49, [2017] 1 WLR 2523, [2018] 1 FLR 426): full publicity of names in the absence of a court order. The position in children proceedings (as to the children) is clear. But beyond that? For example, of published financial relief first instance proceedings of the 20 I have noted only six are anonymised.


So how to advise a client whose proceedings are to be heard in a family court? A starting point must be AAA and ors v Rakoff and ors [2019] EWHC 2525 (QB), Nicklin J (now Lupu etc -v- Rakoff etc) where a group of pole dancers were refused anonymity in their proposed litigation. As explained in “In praise of the common law: sources of law and open justice” the case concerned claimants, nine of whom were pole dancers.  They brought proceedings seeking to restrain the defendant from using video footage of them. The first defendant was a group called ‘Not Buying It’, which campaigns against sexual entertainment venues. Anonymity was the first – and main – issue dealt with by Nicklin J.


Anonymity: withholding a name and reporting restrictions


Any anonymisation application has two parts said Nicklin J: (1) to withhold the name of the relevant party in the proceedings; and (2) a reporting restriction order prohibiting identification of the anonymised party (‘a reporting restrictions order’); and see draft orders in Practice Guidance (Interim Non-Disclosure Orders) of 1 August 2011 [2012] 1WLR 1003 (INDO)). To deal with these orders the judge summarises the case law – including Guardian v Westminster and Cape Intermediate v Dring (both above) which, as he says, underlies the open justice principle:


“[25] The principle of open justice can be engaged in different ways: e.g. a decision by a court to sit in private, the imposition of reporting restriction orders, anonymisation of parties or witnesses and restrictions of access to documents on the court file by non-parties. In each of these areas, derogations from open justice must be justified by clear and cogent evidence and any restriction imposed must be the least restrictive form justified by the particular circumstances that justify the derogation.”


In Zeromska-Smith v United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust [2019] EWHC 552 (QB), Martin Spencer J a claimant applied for damages for psychiatric injury arising out of the stillbirth of her daughter. She was denied anonymity (CPR 1998 r 39.2(4) on anonymity applied). Further, application should have been made earlier in the proceedings and on notice to the press, not at the outset of the case (a similar point to that made by Gloster LJ in Norman v Norman [2017] EWCA Civ 49, [2017] 1 WLR 2523, [2018] 1 FLR 426 (application for anonymity in appeal proceedings must be made on notice and should be made in the appellant’s notice). By contrast in XW v XH [2019] EWCA Civ 549 the appellant successfully applied for anonymity in a reporting restrictions order in the Court of Appeal (CPR 1998 Pt 52 and r 39.2(3)). She was an appellant wife who applied in advance of the hearing of her financial relief appeal. The Court of Appeal order was made due to interests of the parties’ child whose European Convention 1950 Art 8 rights were held to outweigh the Art 10 rights of the press.


In Re TT and YY [2019] EWHC 1823 (Fam) Sir Andrew McFarlane P, sitting in the Administrative Court and Family Division allowed a media appeal for removal of an anonymity order. The man wanted to be registered as father of a child to whom he had given birth, after his transition to male gender. The father had courted extensive publicity. Only the anonymity of the child was to be protected, said Sir Andrew.


Criminal and family proceedings


Plymouth City Council v Wilkins & Ors [2019] EWFC 70 – a case in which Baker LJ sat as a High Court judge (he had heard the case before his elevation) – has attracted a variety of publicity, mostly because it was heard as care proceedings (Children Act 1989 Pt 4) where the judge held that both parents were responsible for their child’s injuries; whilst in criminal proceedings only the mother was convicted. Charges against the father were withdrawn from the jury. The father sought a review of the decision in the care case; though, in effect, he withdrew from those proceedings. Baker LJ upheld his original Pt 4 proceedings decision.


All parties agreed that the child’s name should not be publicised. The mother said, subject to that, that judgments should be published without anonymisation. The father agreed, save that he wanted his name anonymised. The local authority and children’s guardian were neutral. The parents’ names were both publicised in the criminal proceedings. The judgments should be published, said Baker LJ, with only the child’s name withheld.


This subject will be of still more significance if the Domestic Abuse Bill – which combines respectively civil with criminal jurisdictions – finds its way onto the statute book. The critical feature in the Plymouth cases was not publicity, but respective standards of proof (crime and civil). That issue, as far as I can tell, is not dealt with in the draft bill.


Reporting restrictions


The subject of reporting restrictions – which are so central to the publication limitations in AJA 1960 s 12(1) – received little case law publicity. In AB (Application for Reporting Restrictions: Inquest) [2019] EWHC 1668 (QB) Pepperall J dealt with a local authority’s application for a reporting restrictions order (supposedly under Children and Young Person’s Act 1933 s 39) for an inquest to protect evidence as to a 17 year old and her suicide from members of her family. Proper notice had not been given to the press ([11]-[18]). The application was refused. As framed, in the High Court, it could only be in the inherent jurisdiction (see [24]); and Pepperall J was not prepared to exercise any inherent jurisdiction he might have. If any application could be made it must be in the coroner’s court.


A persistent them of case law in the area of restrictions on open justice is that if application is to be made for any restriction, it must be made on proper notice (despite what is said on the subject in President’s guidance as to reporting in the family courts, 3 October 2019 (below)) to the court and, as need be, to the Press Association (see per INDO (above)). The role of an accredited media representative (FPR 2010 r 27.11(2)(f)) and their party status is not dealt with in the guidance; nor was it considered by R (A Child) (below).


R (A Child) [2019] EWCA Civ 482 was a journalist’s successful attempt to have a reporting restrictions order lifted and where facts had already been aired on the mother’s successful earlier appeal to the Court of Appeal. The hearing was a rare example of the Court of Appeal permitting itself to be used for a publicity exercise. There was no real issue on this appeal. Everyone in court agreed that the judge had been wrong in the order he made and that a reporting restrictions order was inappropriate. The case is of no precedent value.


Reporting restrictions: publication of family courts material


The wild-west of civil courts is represented by committal applications for alleged contempt of court. The Court of Appeal records a number of examples of circuit judges shooting from their hips. Recent examples – neither family cases where individuals were recently and unlawfully sent to prison – include: Hughes Jarvis Ltd v Searle & Anor [2019] EWCA Civ 1 (claimant witness sent to prison immediately with claim struck out where he sent emails to his solicitor and spoke to another person: Court of Appeal appealled for “A measured approach” by judges) and Douherty v The Chief Constable of Essex Police [2019] EWCA Civ 55 (imprisonment for breach of an order, where no self-incrimination privilege warning was given, no legal aid and no chance for proper mitigation).


The family equivalent of these cases was Re Nasrullah Mursalin [2019] EWCA Civ 1559 where a committal order (suspended) was made by a circuit judge was set aside. A paralegal mistakenly sent family proceedings papers (contrary to Administration of Justice Act 1960 s 12(1)(a) and FPR 2010 r 12.73(1)) to an immigration tribunal. The appellant had no proper opportunity to obtain legal aid or to plead mitigation. More serious points, not explored by the Court of Appeal, were:


  • Did a circuit judge even have power to make any order on a committal application (no)?
  • Was this ‘publication’ at all in terms of AJA 1960 s 12(1)(a) (probably, yes); but
  • What is the guilty intent (mens rea) required for a case under s 12(1) (see eg Re F (orse A) (a Minor) (Publication of Information) [1977] Fam 58, [1976] 3 WLR 813, CA: over 40 years old, but still important law and a very strong unanimous Court of Appeal).


A model for dealing with committal was provided by HM Attorney General v Yaxley-Lennon [2019] EWHC 1791 (Admin), the QB Divisional Court consisting of Sharpe LJ and Warby J, including:


  • Breach of a Crown Court Contempt of Court Act 1981 s 4(2) reporting restrictions order (postponement of reporting of proceedings held in public where reporting might prejudice administration of justice) ([45]-[66]);
  • Breach of the rule as to strict liability on a respondent where immoderate words are used ([67]-[77]); and
  • Interference at common law with administration of justice ([78]-[88]).


Contempt was found under all heads and the respondent was later given a sentence of nine-months (decision appended to report).


“Guidance” on release of material


The President’s guidance as to reporting in the family courts, 3 October 2019 is not law, still less is it common law: it is merely guidance. It is an odd document if only because the President seems to be advising that process be issued without court fee or proper notice to anyone. I would expect most judges to be unhappy with such a free-wheeling approach, even in family courts. I am sure HM Courts and Tribunal Service will be wary, and the Treasury will not allow a court fee to be waived (if it finds out).


The President’s office confirms the guidance applies to all family proceedings; yet of costs (para 16) the guidance says “the standard approach as to costs in children cases will apply” (ie almost invariably no costs order). Why “children cases” where many family cases may have nothing to do with children? Costs orders are an area where a variety of law applies to the miscellany of family proceedings (in addition being a question for the discretion of the judge: Senior Courts Act 1981 s 51(3)). If it is a commercial media organisation which has made the application and put all parties to expense, why should they not pay if their application is not successful (CPR 1998 r 44.2(2): costs of successful party generally to be paid by the unsuccessful party)?


Anonymity for pole dancers


Private hearing; but when to be anonymised?


If you have to tell a client whether their family court hearing will be dealt with anonymously or not (ie their names to remain confidential), the best thing they can do is toss a coin – certainly if their hearing is before a High Court judge. Hearings of family cases under Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) are – says a court rule (FPR 2010 r 27.10) – to be ‘in private’. That does not tell you whether your name will be public or not, save in the case of a child and (probably) of parents in children proceedings. Just because your case is heard in private is no guarantee your name will be kept secret.


For example, of all the first instance financial relief cases in front of High Court judges, over the past ten months, seventeen were reported; and of those seventeen, only four were anonymised. The remaining thirteen were all between named parties. Because the hearing is in private does not mean the parties will be anonymous. This proposition – the link between a private hearing and anonymity – draws support from CPR 1998 r 39.2 which treats as one step that parties may seek an order for a hearing (or part of it) to be in private (r 39.2(3)). Anonymity is dealt with as a separate application to the court under CPR 1998 r 39.2(4)).


In the Court of Appeal your name will unquestionably be public (Norman v Norman [2017] EWCA Civ 49, [2017] 1 WLR 2523, [2018] 1 FLR 426), unless for exceptional reasons – see summary in CPR 1998 r 39.2(3) – you can persuade a Lord/Lady Justice you should be anonymous; or that the appeal is by or on behalf or about, a child or, perhaps other protected parties (CPR 1998 Pt 21).


Application for anonymity


So, on what basis can a party seek to be anonymous in civil proceedings? This was considered in detail by Nicklin J in AAA (and others) -v- Rakoff (and others) [2019] EWHC 2525 (QB) (30 September 2019). The case concerned claimants, nine of whom were dancers and at a club known as Spearmint Rhino (the tenth claimant).  They brought proceedings seeking to restrain the defendant from using video footage it had obtained within the clubs. The first defendant was the chief executive of the second defendant, a group called ‘Not Buying It’, which campaigns against sexual entertainment venues.


The finer CPR 1998 aspects of the case can be found at ‘Service of the claim form issues, anonymity, expedited trials and … Spearmint Rhino’ . This article looks at the question of anonymity which was the preliminary issue in the case dealt with by Nicklin J.


Nicklin J explained that any application for anonymisation has two distinct parts: first an order that withholds the name of the relevant party in the proceedings and permits the proceedings to be issued replacing the party’s name with a cipher under CPR 1998 r 16.2 (‘a CPR 16 Order’: perhaps PD16A para 2); and, secondly, a reporting restriction order prohibiting identification of the anonymised party (‘a reporting restrictions order’); and see draft orders in Practice Guidance (Interim Non-Disclosure Orders) of 1 August 2011 [2012] 1WLR 1003 (INDO). Though the law outlined here applies in family proceedings there is no equivalent to CPR 1998 PD16A para 2).


Nicklin J draws on the INDO guidance, especially paras 9 to 14. He then moves to a tour de force to summarise the fundamental jurisprudence which underlies the open justice principle:


‘[25] The principle of open justice can be engaged in different ways: e.g. a decision by a court to sit in private, the imposition of reporting restriction orders, anonymisation of parties or witnesses and restrictions of access to documents on the court file by non-parties. In each of these areas, derogations from open justice must be justified by clear and cogent evidence and any restriction imposed must be the least restrictive form justified by the particular circumstances that justify the derogation.’


The judge cited recent case law, namely R (Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2012] EWCA Civ 420, [2013] QB 618 and Cape Intermediate Holdings Ltd v Dring (Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK) [2019] UKSC 38, [2019] 3 WLR 429 (considered further here). Both of these cases were concerned with release of court material to non-parties. Elemental to both was the open justice principle on which English courts operate.


Open justice principle and anonymity


From these two important cases Nicklin J concluded:


‘[29] … That there are principally two categories of case in which derogations from open justice can be justified: maintenance of the administration of justice and harm to other legitimate interests. The first category of case is where, without the relevant order being made, the administration of justice would be frustrated: Attorney-General -v- Leveller Magazine Ltd [1979] AC 440, 457E…[and see Scott -v- Scott [1913] AC 417 per Viscount Haldane LC at 437-439].’


The second category of derogation – relating mostly to private matters – was summarised by Nicklin J as follows:


‘[30] Restrictions on open justice to protect the legitimate interests of others raise more difficult issues. The starting point is the recognition that open justice (and probably of greater practical significance, the privilege that attaches to media reports of proceedings in open court) will frequently lead to some interference with the legitimate interests of parties and witnesses….’


The judge has form in this area of work. In AAA he provides a text-book summary of the law on open justice principles. And he refers a couple of times to Khan (formerly JMO) v Khan (formerly KTA) [2018] EWHC 241 (QB), (15 February 2018). When you look up that case you discover Nicklin J is the judge there as well. In both cases he shows how firm is his grasp of the relevant case law.


The conclusion for AAA and her fellow pole-dancers was that they would be denied anonymity (it does not seem they claimed a private hearing). The anonymity remains pending any appeal, and pending the disposal of that appeal if permission is given for it.


Khan and domestic abuse


From a family lawyer’s stand-point Khan is instructive. It was a harassment case between two brothers where both were refused anonymity, and were told their case would be heard in open court. Nicklin J made the following comment, which may be instructive when it comes to domestic abuse cases in family courts:


[90] … In most harassment claims, the disclosure of private information in open court is simply an incidence of the litigation and that is no different from any other civil case. But, unlike privacy claims, in most harassment claims there is normally no risk that the administration of justice will be frustrated by the proceedings being heard in open court…. An anonymity order therefore cannot be justified on that basis. If there are discrete pieces of the evidence, that engage significant Article 8 rights, then the way to deal with that is not by blanket anonymisation, but by [targeted measures]. Put simply, any greater derogation from the principle of open justice is not necessary.


If anonymity is denied to two brothers, why not the same for couples who have been living together, and one (or both) make allegations that the other has been abusive? Unless the privacy interests of children are engaged (concerning which see Keene LJ in Clibbery v Allan [2002] EWCA Civ 45, [2002] Fam 261, [2002] 1 FLR 565 at [120]-[122]), there is no reason why domestic abuse cases should be heard in secret; and probably every reason why they should be heard in open court.

Open court hearings: thoughts for family law reform




Straws in the wind


Work has been done by the President, Sir Andrew McFarlane P, and his predecessor on publication of judgements; and ‘legal bloggers’ are allowed into courts otherwise closed by Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) r 27.10. A new draft practice guidance – not a practice direction? – is at large (in draft or made as guidance?) on ‘Guidance as to reporting in the family courts’.


The Family Procedure Rules Committee (FPRC) has ruled that hearings under FPR 2010 (unless otherwise stated) are to be ‘in private’ (FPR 2010 r 27.10); but what this means beyond the actual hearing of the case (eg as to release of documents and information to those attending court, anonymisation, publication of material from a hearing and so on) is not clear.


Perhaps the time is appropriate for review of the following:


  • What is the position of release of court material after Guardian v Westminster (below) and Cape Intermediate v Dring (below);
  • If the Supreme Court can release parties’ skeleton arguments (see in R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister [2019] UKSC 41 (24 September 2019)) cannot other courts do so, anonymised where suitably directed;
  • Is it time for review of Sir James Munby P’s Transparency


Open court: the default position


The default position for all common law litigation is that it be heard in open court, unless exceptional circumstances dictate that part or all of a hearing be heard privately. In the recent R (Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2012] EWCA Civ 420, [2013] QB 618 (Guardian v Westminster) Toulson LJ explained this as:


[1] Open justice. The words express a principle at the heart of our system of justice and vital to the rule of law. The rule of law is a fine concept but fine words butter no parsnips. How is the rule of law itself to be policed? It is an age old question. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – who will guard the guards themselves? In a democracy, where power depends on the consent of the people governed, the answer must lie in the transparency of the legal process….


In the recent Supreme Court case of Cape Intermediate Holdings Ltd v Dring (Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK) [2019] UKSC 38, [2019] 3 WLR 429 (29 July 2019) the court was considering the jurisdiction of the courts generally to permit release of court material ton non-parties. Of the context for their decision they said:


[34] …However, case after case has recognised that the guiding principle is the need for justice to be done in the open and that courts at all levels have an inherent jurisdiction to allow access in accordance with that principle. Furthermore, the open justice principle is applicable throughout the United Kingdom, even though the court rules may be different.


All courts at whatever level are subject to the open justice principle.


Family proceedings and open justice


Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) r 27.10 says that all hearings’ or family ‘proceedings’ should be in private save where stated otherwise (eg divorce: r 7.16(1)):


27.10 Hearings in private

(1) Proceedings to which these rules apply will be held in private, except –

(a) where these rules or any other enactment provide otherwise;

(b) subject to any enactment, where the court directs otherwise.

(2) For the purposes of these rules, a reference to proceedings held ‘in private’ means proceedings at which the general public have no right to be present.


In Guardian v Westminster Lord Toulson emphasised the substantive law – the common law – source of the open justice principle:


[69] The open justice principle is a constitutional principle to be found not in a written text but in the common law. It is for the courts to determine its requirements, subject to any statutory provision. It follows that the courts have an inherent jurisdiction to determine how the principle should be applied.


In Dunhill v Burgin (Nos 1 and 2) [2014] UKSC 18, [2014] 1 WLR 933 (and see the same point in Jaffray v The Society of Lloyds [2007] EWCA Civ 586, [2008] 1 WLR 75) Lady Hale said:


[27] [Court rules cannot] change the substantive law unless expressly permitted so to do by statute: see Re Grosvenor Hotel Ltd (No 2) [1965] Ch 1210


The power to make FPR 2010 is delegated to the FPRC by Courts Act 2003 ss 75 and 76. There is no power, vested in FPRC by ss 75 or 76, to rewrite the common law in relation to open justice. It is likely that, if challenged, r 27.10 would be found to be ultra vires the rule-makers (ie outside the powers given to them by Parliament). Perhaps that is for another day….


Open justice and related issues


For the present it is necessary to recall that open justice principles apply also to other aspect of court proceedings; and to accept, for now, that FPR 2010 rule-makers have the power to alter the common law. The hearing may be ‘in private’; but what of other open justice related issues (Guardian v Westminster was about a press request for documents after a magistrates’ court extradition proceedings hearing). Such open justice related issues include:


  • Release of documents prior to a hearing to help anyone one (eg a journalist under FPR 2010 r 27.11(2)(f)) to understand what is happening;
  • Release of documents after a hearing (Cape Intermediate v Dring);
  • Publication of a judgment anonymised or not
  • Reporting restrictions orders; and – especially – for how long (and for how long are parties to be embargoed from releasing, or the press from publishing, material in the case?
  • Anonymisation or parties, and of witnesses (eg witnesses, especially experts, social workers, accountants, medics and valuers)


In law, all of these topics start from open justice principles; but none are related directly to whether or not a hearing takes place in private. FPR 2010 r 27.10 does not necessarily apply.


Hearing in ‘private’


Although each of Administration of Justice Act 1960 (AJA 1960) s 12(1), FPR 2010 r 27.10 and CPR 1998 r 39.2(3) speak of hearing ‘in private’, only r 27.10 tells us that ‘proceedings held “in private”’ means the public have no right to be present. Case law tells us a lot more. This was explained in ‘Private hearing, in secret and in chambers’. So what then are the consequences of a hearing being held ‘in private’?





Areas for immediate review or reform


The areas referred to above for reform can be boiled down to:


  • Anonymisation of parties and of witnesses.
  • Release of documents prior to a hearing, with permission of the court.
  • Release of documents after a hearing to non-parties (Cape Intermediate v Dring), with permission of the court.
  • Publication or ‘use’ of disclosed documents.
  • Publication of a judgment anonymised or not
  • Reporting and other restriction orders: for how long?


This note will touch on the first to the fourth of these.


(1)        Anonymisation


I know work is being done in other parts of the common law jurisdictions on this. I will only mention it here because, in a case which is to be dealt with privately, anonymisation on terms directed by the court, or agreed by the parties, will be important early on. Any documents – such as skeleton arguments, statements (without enclosures) etc – released to non-parties (eg to the press; under (2) in the above list) – can be suitably anonymised from an early stage in proceedings.


By the way, calling parties first, second etc ‘respondent’ does not anonymise them: it just confuses the reader, especially when the case may be entitled Re x. And then in the Court of Appeal the parties may all be something different. Please give the parties names, or – if anonymised – false names or letters. (One case I was involved in recently the judge just took all the initials and moved them one place in the alphabet: I am not sure that was much by way of anonymisation.)


(2)        Release of material prior to hearing


Because a hearing is in private does not mean material cannot be release from, or in relation, to it. FPR 2010 r 29.12 says:


29.12 Access to and inspection of documents retained in court

(1)  Except as provided by this rule or by any other rule or Practice Direction, no document or copy of a document filed or lodged in the court office shall be open to inspection by any person without the permission of the court, and no copy of any such document or copy shall be taken by, or issued to, any person without such permission.


In Appleton & Gallagher v News Group Newspapers Ltd & PA [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam), [2016] 2 FLR 1, Mostyn J said – obiter (ie it was not part of his decision, and is not therefore law) – that


[13] … the press are not allowed any access to documents whatsoever – see FPR 2010, r 29.12. This is only consistent with a watchdog role, because without the documents the press can hardly be expected to be able to report the case intelligibly or even-handedly. Further still, PD 27B paras 2.4 and 5.2(b) confirm the ‘unaffected’ continuance of the existing reporting restrictions for such proceedings held in private….

[14] … Parliament when passing the rules specifically maintained these proceedings as private, and denied members of the public admission to them.


This comment is open to three main criticisms:


  • Parliament does not ‘pass’ rules. They do not have the weight of statute. They are made by delegated authority under Courts Act 2003 (as explained above) and by the negative resolution procedure: Courts Act 2003 s 79(6))


  • It is impossible to see that r 29.12(1) says what Mostyn J says. It specifically says that with permission ‘any person’ (ie including a non-party such as the press) with permission can inspect documents and can take copies.


  • FPR 2010 r 29.12(1) must be looked at alongside CPR 1998 r 5.4C.


The nearest equivalent in civil proceedings to r 29.12(1) is CPR 1998 r 5.4C(1) and (2) (though this rule deals with non-party access, specifically, which would – of course – include the press):


Supply of documents to a non-party from court records

(1) The general rule is that a person who is not a party to proceedings may obtain from the court records a copy of [a statement of case etc; any judgment etc].

(2) A non-party may, if the court gives permission, obtain from the records of the court a copy of any other document filed by a party, or communication between the court and a party or another person.


The working of this rule is dealt with in Cape Intermediate v Dring (see the next part of this note); but it is important to mention it here because its reach goes to all court proceedings (civil (including family) and criminal); and in principal it can apply to pre- and post-hearing documents as appropriate.


Guardian v Westminster concerned an application after the hearing for documents; but there was a helpful discussion by Toulson LJ, especially at [33]-[35], of the reason for pre-hearing disclosure. He explained the need for this to bring modern practice of courts – where a lot of reading is being done alone by judges – into line with the need for an open system of justice.


(3)        Release of material after a hearing; access by non-parties to court material


In Cape Intermediate Holdings Ltd v Dring (Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK) [2019] UKSC 38 (29 July 2019) the issues were summarised by Lady Hale (who gave the judgment of the Supreme Court: Lord Briggs, Lady Arden and Lords Kitchen and Sales) at [15] as:


  • What is the extent of Civil Procedure Rules 1998 (CPR 1998) r 5.4C(2) (supply of documents to a non-party from court records?
  • Is access to court documents governed solely by the CPR 1998, save in exceptional circumstances, as the appellant (Cape Intermediate) argues? Or does the court have an inherent power to order access separate from the rules?
  • If there is such a power, how far does it extend and how should it be exercised?


The case applies to all proceedings covered by the common law (ie criminal cases and all forms of civil proceedings). The decision is based on the open justice principle fully explained by Toulson LJ in Guardian v Westminster.


[41] The constitutional principle of open justice applies to all courts and tribunals exercising the judicial power of the state. It follows that, unless inconsistent with statute or the rules of court, all courts and tribunals have an inherent jurisdiction to determine what that principle requires in terms of access to documents or other information placed before the court or tribunal in question. The extent of any access permitted by the court’s rules is not determinative (save to the extent that they may contain a valid prohibition). It is not correct to talk in terms of limits to the court’s jurisdiction when what is in fact in question is how that jurisdiction should be exercised in the particular case.


How does the case impact on the family courts? It raises a number of important questions, which these articles must address. First, to what extent does Cape Intermediate v Dring apply to family proceedings at all? The case summarises the common law on open justice. To what extent, if at all, can the common law be overlaid by a rule?


The case gave the court an opportunity to consider how much of written material provided to the court by the parties themselves should be accessible to non-parties’. It continues an important line of authority going back to the minority speech of Lord Scarman in Harman v Secretary of State for the Home Department [1983] 1 AC 280, [1982] 2 WLR 338 and Lord Bingham in Smithkline Beecham Biologicals SA v Connaught Laboratories Inc [1999] EWCA Civ 1781, [1999] 4 All ER 498, [2000] FSR 1 (both cited in the Supreme Court and note in [33]-[35] of Guardian v Westminster).


The court held that a court could give permission for release to a non-party the following (see [9] to [11]):


  • The routine documents summarised in CPR5A1 para 4.2 (above); but not including, necessarily, trial bundles.


  • In its inherent jurisdiction the court generally, has jurisdiction to permit non-parties to obtain certain documents (see eg GIO Personal Investment Services Ltd v Liverpool and London Steamship Protection [1999] 1 WLR 984 at 994-5).


The main rationale for application of the inherent jurisdiction is to accord with the open justice principle and to enable anyone permitted to attend court to make sense of proceedings (see eg Guardian v Westminster). The following documents might be released:


  • skeleton arguments and other written submissions (Cape Intermediate in the Court of Appeal at [69]; GIO (above));
  • documents the judge has read or has been asked to read in court or in a skeleton argument (Lilly Icos v Pfizer Ltd [2002] EWCA Civ 2, [2002] 1 WLR 2253; and see CPR 1998 r 31.22);
  • witness statements ‘during the course of the trial’ (CPR 1998 r 32.13) including experts reports (Cape Intermediate at [96]), but not their exhibits (Cape Intermediate at [100]); and
  • any other document which it is necessary for the court to release to comply with the open justice principle (Cape Intermediate at [110]).


If documents are suitable anonymised and to accord with principles of open justice – at least for those permitted into court: FPR 2010 r 27.11(2) – the question must be: why cannot any of these documents be released to non-parties (subject to any issue which arises under AJA 1960 s 12 and ‘the implied undertaking’)?


(4)        Incidence of the ‘implied undertaking’


Alongside release of documents to non-parties must also come the question of the ‘implied undertaking’ as to release of documents which a party has been compelled to disclose (eg by the requirement for full and frank disclosure in financial relief proceedings).


The undertaking has been codified in CPR 1998 r 31.22(1)-(3) as ‘subsequent use of disclosed documents’ as follows


Subsequent use of disclosed documents…

(1) A party to whom a document has been disclosed may use the document only for the purpose of the proceedings in which it is disclosed, except where –

(a) the document has been read to or by the court, or referred to, at a hearing which has been held in public;

(b) the court gives permission; or

(c) the party who disclosed the document and the person to whom the document belongs agree.

(2) The court may make an order restricting or prohibiting the use of a document which has been disclosed, even where the document has been read to or by the court, or referred to, at a hearing which has been held in public.

(3) An application for such an order may be made –

(a) by a party; or

(b) by any person to whom the document belongs.


It can reasonably be assumed that this rule in this form applies to family proceedings (see discussion in Clibbery v Allan [2002] EWCA Civ 45, [2002] Fam 261, [2002] 1 FLR 565); but then the question is, was the hearing ‘in public’. If not and the hearing was ‘in private’ which of the definitions above applies?


CPR 1998 r 5.4C deals with application by a non-party. Rule 31.22(1)(a) deals with the extent to which a party can publish documents. The consequence of the rule in Clibbery v Allan – which has not been altered by the subsequent making of FPR 2010 – is that a party to proceedings can ‘use’ (ie publish, as did Ms Clibbery) a document disclosed in proceedings heard ‘in private’ where it has been read by the court; or otherwise with permission or agreement of her opponent (neither of which applied).


All of this is most emphatically subject to the statutory restraints of AJA 1960 s 12(1); but for most family proceedings purposes, only s 12(1)(a) (ie children proceedings) applies for open court hearings.


The party who wishes to publish following a hearing – say to pass to the press details of her husband’s financial dealings after the hearing – must decide whether the judge has ‘read’ the documents concerned. If so, the fact that a hearing was ‘in private’ – at least on the case law of 1999-2004 – suggests there is no breach of the ‘implied undertaking’. If there is the remedy is private, not the criminal contempt implied by AJA 1960 s 12 (Attorney General v Leveller Magazine Ltd [1979] AC 440).


Proposals for reform will follow in a later article.

Private hearing, in secret and in chambers


What is ‘private’: a need for clarity in law


Both sets of relatively recent court rules – Civil Procedure Rules 1998 (CPR 1998) and Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) – use the term ‘private’ of court hearings, but without any attempt in either to define ‘private’. More seriously the earlier Administration of Justice Act 1960 s 12(1) uses ‘private’ without any attempt in the Act to define it. I say ‘more seriously’ because s 12(1), in its inscrutable way, suggests that publication of information from certain types of proceedings ‘in private’ may be a ‘contempt of court’. A person found to be in contempt may be sent to prison. But why should anyone be sent to prison if they don’t know that what they have done is wrong because ‘private’ is not defined?


Lord Bingham’s first rule of law, in his David Williams memorial lecture in 2006 concerned clarity in law:


‘First, the law must be accessible and so far as possible intelligible, clear and predictable. This seems obvious: if everyone is bound by the law they must be able without undue difficulty to find out what it is, even if that means taking advice (as it usually will), and the answer when given should be sufficiently clear that a course of action can be based on it.’


This accessibility is most obviously associated with criminal proceedings, but it applies generally to all law. In the case of contempt and imprisonment for a possible breach of court privacy, it assuredly applies. If you don’t know that a court is truly sitting ‘in private’, or – worse still – it perhaps should not be sitting in private, then can you still be sent to prison for alleged breach of the law. If you are threatened with prison the condition for that – what you may publish from a ‘private hearing’ – depends on its defining condition, that the court is ‘in private’ and what that means, in law.


Each of the statute and sets of rules have interpretation or definition sections; yet none of them say what is meant by ‘private’, save that FPR 2010 r 27.10(2) says what it is not: namely ‘proceedings at which the general public have no right to be present’. I will therefore set out the relevant provisions and then set out what the courts have said to explain ‘private’.


‘In private’: statute and rules


AJA 1960 s 12(1) under the heading: ‘Publication of information relating to proceedings in private’ says:


‘(1)The publication of information relating to proceedings before any court sitting in private shall not of itself be contempt of court except in the following cases, that is to say—

(a)where the proceedings—

(i)relate to the exercise of the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court with respect to minors;

(ii)are brought under the Children Act 1989 or the Adoption and Children Act 2002; or

(iii)otherwise relate wholly or mainly to the maintenance or upbringing of a minor;

(b)where the proceedings are brought under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 [etc];

(c)where the court sits in private for reasons of national security…;

(d)where the information relates to a secret process, discovery or invention which is in issue in the proceedings;

(e)where the court (having power to do so) expressly prohibits the publication of all information relating to the proceedings or of information of the description which is published.’


Nothing is said here about the main variety of family proceedings, save children proceedings. Such proceedings – especially financial proceedings – may be caught by another common law rule, namely that a party may not publish documents disclosed under compulsion (eg ‘full and frank disclosure’)). Subject to that publication of documents and other material from family proceedings other than children proceedings appears not to be caught by s 12(1), even though a hearing was dealt with ‘in private’. (I add, though it is of little direct relevance here, that Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) s 97 prohibits the publication of ‘material which is intended, or likely, to identify’ a  child involved in proceedings; but the prohibition comes to an end once the proceedings have been concluded (Clayton v Clayton [2006] EWCA Civ 878, [2006] Fam 83, [2007] 1 FLR 11; Re J (A Child) (contra mundum injunction) [2014] 1 FLR 523, [2014] 2 FCR 284 Sir James Munby P).)


CPR 1998 r 39.2(1) requires that all civil proceedings be in public, save as set out in r 39.2(3), the main part of which says:


‘(3) A hearing, or any part of it, must be held in private if, and only to the extent that, the court is satisfied of one or more of the matters set out in sub-paragraphs (a) to (g) and that it is necessary to sit in private to secure the proper administration of justice –

(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;..’


And finally, FPR 2010 r 27.10(1) says:


Hearings in private

(1) Proceedings to which these rules apply will be held in private, except –

(a) where these rules or any other enactment provide otherwise;

(b) subject to any enactment, where the court directs otherwise.


‘In private’ and the common law


In the absence of any statutory definition of ‘in private’, in secret and so on, what does the common law say, what do the judges say. The subject of what is meant by private (or in chambers) in the period since the drafting and introduction of CPR 1998, really comes alive with Forbes v Smith [1998] 1 All ER 973, [1998] 1 FLR 835, Jacob J (21 December 1997) where he gave permission to publish a judgment given in chambers in bankruptcy proceedings. In so doing he said (at FLR 836):


‘The concept of a secret judgment is one which I believe to be inherently abhorrent. Only in cases where there is a cause for secrecy, such as in a trade secrets’ case, can it in general be right that a judgment should be regarded as a secret document. Even then it may be only a part of the judgment needs to be secret. I conclude, in the absence of binding authority to the contrary, that when judgments are given in chambers they are not to be regarded as secret documents.’


Less than two months later, at a time when the Civil Procedure Act 1997 had been on the statute book for a year, and drafting of what became Civil Procedure Rules 1998 was well under way, the Court of Appeal gave judgment in Hodgson v Imperial Tobacco Ltd [1998] 1 WLR 1056 (12 February 1998). The case concerned claims against a tobacco company, on behalf of a variety of claimants. They said their cancer gave them a cause of action against the company.


Public access to chambers hearings


The court reviewed the ‘exceptional’ circumstances for hearings in camera recognised in Scott and emphasised the distinction between ‘chambers’ on the one hand and ‘secret’ and or ‘private’ hearings on the other (at 1070). The judgment of the court was given by Lord Woolf MR who was then chairing the committee which was preparing CPR 1998:


‘A distinction has to be clearly drawn between the normal situation where a court sits in chambers and when a court sits in camera in the exceptional situations recognised in [Scott] or the court sits in chambers and the case falls in the categories specified in [AJA 1960 s 12(1)] (which include issues involving children, national security, secret processes and the like).’


The difficulty the court confronted (as they put it at 1071) was that the subject of what was meant by ‘private’, in chambers etc was ‘virtually free from authority’. There was nothing in case law to guide them. They, the judges, must therefore frame the law. They did so in the light of their assertion of clear principle:


‘However it remains a principle of the greatest importance that, unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise, which will not exist in the generality of cases, there should be public access to hearings in chambers and information available as to what occurred at such hearings. The fact that the public do not have the same right to attend hearings in chambers as those in open court and there can be in addition practical difficulties in arranging physical access does not mean that such access as is practical should not be granted.


It is clearly stated that as far as possible public should have access to chambers hearings, and to what happened at hearings – that is publicity including of judgment. This will always be subject to the exceptions in AJA 1960 s 12(1). And this statement of principle from the Court of Appeal was re-enforced by a differently constituted court in Ex parte Guardian Newspapers Ltd [1999] 1 WLR 2130, CA (judgment on 30 September 1999)


[24] We would add that considerations of this kind also underlay Lord Woolf MR’s earlier important judgment in [Hodgson v Imperial], in which he said (at 1071), that it remained a principle of the greatest importance that, unless there were compelling reasons for doing otherwise, there should be public access to hearings in chambers, and information available as to what occurred at such hearings.


Clibbery v Allan


So far as there was then, or is now, any distinction between the two types of proceedings, the case law so far relates to civil proceedings. Clibbery v Allan [2002] EWCA Civ 45, [2002] Fam 261, [2002] 1 FLR 565 saw the Court of Appeal looking at whether documents from a family hearing ‘in private’ could, even so, be passed on for publication to the press. They held that such publication was permissible. Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss P considered Hodgson and provided the following definition:


‘[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 summarised a variety of circumstances where in family proceedings – then governed still by Rules of the Supreme Court 1965 and County Court Rules 1981 alongside Family Proceedings Rules 1991 – were conducted in chambers, sometimes because the rules said so, sometimes merely out of undefined habit or practice.


In Department of Economics, Policy and Development of the City of Moscow and another v Bankers Trust Co and another [2004] EWCA Civ 314, [2005] QB 207 the Court of Appeal – Mance LJ – provided a synthesis of their earlier decisions in Hodgson and Clibbery v Allan. The case concerned whether a judgement in an arbitration should be published where, as a result of a mistake, a summary had been published by Lawtel. The judge said no: arbitration proceedings were generally in private. The Court of Appeal allowed publication of the summary, but said the judgment as a whole should remain private.


Mance LJ referred to what Dame Elizabeth had said, seconded by Keene LJ,


‘[26] Keene LJ agreed with Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss P and endorsed (at [120]–[121]), “the need to scrutinise more closely than has happened in practice in the past whether a hearing in private can be justified”, adding that “in some cases, such as in some instances of applications for occupation orders, there may be little justification for the proceedings to be heard in private”. He observed that the burden of showing that such an application falls within one of the exceptions to European Convention 1950 Article 6(1) “is likely to be particularly difficult to discharge where children are not involved”.’


Scott v Scott: no absolute rule of open court


There is no absolute rule as to when a case should be heard in private or in open court: R (Pelling) v Bow County Court [2000] EWHC 636 (Admin) QB Div Ct reminds us of that point. Subject to that and to the constrictions of s 12(1) anyone who wants to go into a private hearing or to publish a judgment from a chambers hearing is entitled to draw attention to the fact that the statute law and rules neither of them clearly say what is meant by ‘in private’.


The common law asserts – or appears to do so – that there remains a distinction between open court hearings, hearings ‘in private’ and hearings ‘in secret’. At the very least, in the absence of any court order to the contrary (the Moscow case was an arbitration, and there was a contrary order) judgements from a hearing ‘in private’ can be published.


Such as it is, attendance at private hearings and publication of judgments from chambers hearings (subject to exclusion by AJA 1960 s 12(1) and CA 1989 s 97) is what the case law seems to say; and in the 20 years since Hodgson, its comment that the law on this subject was ‘virtually free from authority’, still applies. Authority on what is ‘private’ remains sparse.

Open justice: when is secrecy lawful in family proceedings? – Part 3




This series asks to what extent is the provision in Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) r 27.10 that all family proceedings (save where rules say otherwise) must be heard in secret (‘private’) within the powers of the rule-makers? And this Part asks: in what court an applicant who wants to challenge the validity of the secrecy in r 27.10 makes that challenge? The short answer is that the challenge to a rule’s validity can be made in the court (here the appropriate level of family court) in which the question arises. (As has already been explained in Part 2, it is doubtful whether the rule-makers can lawfully say that some family proceedings should be private, such as domestic abuse proceedings.)


This question follows on from Part 1 which considered what the common law – applicable in all English courts – says about hearings in open court.?


Domestic abuse proceedings in the Family Court


The illustration behind this final Part is family proceedings in which a man (B) is alleged to have been violent to a complainant woman (C) whom he lived with. She made a statement to police under Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings Guidance on interviewing victims and witnesses, March 2011, Ministry of Justice   (ABE procedures) which can be heard in court. The police have statements from neighbours in which they speak of hearing her screams and of noises which are consistent with what she has said to the police.


B is a local footballer (relatively well-known in the local press). He made a statement to the police in which he denied what she alleged. Statements were made to the police by his fellow players that they had seen C being abusive towards him when she was drunk, and how restrained he had been. The police have not yet decided whether to prosecute.


C seeks protection for herself, and to exclude B from their home for her and for the sake of their 3 year old child. She applies to the Family Court. Two members of the local paper would like to attend court; and A, a friend of C, believes that she is entitled to attend court to hear the case. Each want to read the statements prepared for the case. A would like to be able to speak to the local and national press after any court hearing.


Application to attend court


In this case there are three categories of individual who may want to come into court:


  • Friends, family or other contacts of a party to the proceedings;
  • Non-parties who for professional reasons want to attend and write about or otherwise discuss the case: say a journalist or a legal blogger (they may be entitled to come into a family court (FPR 2010 r 27.11(2)(e)); but what they think they can publish may be limited (Administration of Justice Act 1960 s 12(1)); and
  • Member of the general public (ie someone who is not a party to the case or otherwise involved in any way) who just want to come into court.


On whether a hearing should be ‘in private’ or not, FPR 2010 r 27.10 says:


27.10 Hearings in private

(1) Proceedings to which these rules apply will be held in private, except –

(a) where these rules or any other enactment provide otherwise;

(b) subject to any enactment, where the court directs otherwise.

(2) For the purposes of these rules, a reference to proceedings held ‘in private’ means proceedings at which the general public have no right to be present.


If any of those who want to go into court, but they are excluded but they think they should have been allowed in, what can she do about it? In what court should any challenge be made; and what legal principles direct the way in which any application – in whatever court – should be disposed of?


Is the case open court: a matter of administrative law


The principles which govern whether a rule or other direction is valid (in this case whether a case is heard in open or in secret) are dictated by administrative law. First how can the powers of rule-makers be challenged; and, secondly, how can a wrong decision of the court or its administrators to exclude anyone be challenged?


In Howker v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2002] EWCA Civ 1623, [2003] ICR 405 Hale LJ (sitting with Peter Gibson and Mance LJJ) considered these questions. In Howker a benefits provision was found to be invalid, and it was held the Commissioner could have made findings on Mr Howker’s appeal to the Upper Tribunal (as it would now be). She pointed out (at [51-[52]) that there were two categories of case where the validity of delegated legislation might be challenged. First was where administrative acts are aimed at a particular person (see Stannard (below)). The second is where subordinate legislation is of general character (ie directed at the world at large) (and see Lord Irvine LC in Boddington v British Transport Police [1998] UKHL 13; [1999] 2 AC 143 at 161, considered below).


The question for a court or administrative tribunal, as Hale LJ explained in Howker concerns the extent of the jurisdiction in the court to hear and decide on validity:


[52] … It has been clear since Chief Adjudication Officer v Foster [1993] AC 754 that there is jurisdiction to entertain challenges to the validity of social security regulations in the course of the social security appeal procedures. The question is not, as it was in R v Wicks [1998] AC 92 and Boddington… whether the commissioner could entertain the challenge. The question [here] is whether he was right to reject it….


That is to say, if a question of validity of secondary legislation arises, can the question be dealt with in the court where it is raised?


Boddington and a collateral challenge


In Boddington, the case on which most of the discussion in this Part depends, the background was that Mr Boddington was prosecuted for breach of a byelaw which was said to prevent him from smoking on a train. He contended that the smoking ban was ultra vires the railway company as it went beyond the company’s statutory powers under the Transport Act 1962.


The House of Lords held that the stipendiary magistrate had been wrong to rule that Mr Boddington could not raise the vires question as a defence to the criminal charge, because, on the true construction of the statutory provisions, Parliament did not intend to exclude that defence to such a criminal charge. It was emphasised that the first time Mr Boddington had a sensible opportunity to challenge the vires issue was when he was charged with breach. (He had not raised it on judicial review.)


So was Mr Boddington entitled to challenge the validity (vires) of the bye-law under which he was prosecuted in the court which dealt with his criminal charge? The House of Lords said, yes he could make a collateral challenge in the criminal proceedings. It was not necessary for him to take separate judicial review proceedings. Lord Steyn explained this (at 175):


… Allowing a collateral or defensive challenge ‘avoids a cumbrous duplicity [etc, see above] as Lord Bridge put it in [Foster (above)]. In any event, expediency is not a sufficient and proper basis for taking away by judicial decision part of the jurisdiction of magistrates’ courts to rule on issues pertinent to the guilt or innocence of defendants….


Challenge to the validity of subsidiary legislation


Lord Steyn pointed out that if courts could not deal with the validity of subsidiary legislation, they might be left in the position of having to ‘convict defendants and to punish them despite the fact that the invalidity of the byelaw or order on which the prosecution is based affords the defendant an answer to the charge’. This would involve ‘an injustice which cannot be tolerated in our criminal justice system’. Not to permit a collateral challenge was a state of affairs which Lord Steyn found (at 173) to be too ‘austere and indeed too authoritarian to be compatible with the traditions of the common law’.


Mr Boddington’s appeal ultimately failed because the House of Lords held that, under the relevant statutory provisions, the rail company did have power to impose a total smoking ban. The House held, however, that the magistrate would have been entitled to hear the collateral challenge to the vires of the bye-law under which he was prosecuted.


In Stannard v Crown Prosecution Service [2019] EWHC 84 (Admin), [2019] 1 WLR 3229 the Queen’s Bench Divisional Court (Hickinbottom LJ, Whipple J) held that, likewise, the court which tried an offence against community protection notice (CPN), was not obliged to consider the appropriateness of the notice where a defendant had not appealled against it when the notice was first made. Boddington did not apply, said the Divisional Court, because the CPN was specific to an individual and to his behaviour.


Friends, family or supporters not permitted attendance at court


Finally is the case where the court or its staff (HM Courts and Tribunal Service: HMCTS) excludes individuals who were entitled to be in court, but were kept out of any hearing. Matthew O’Connor (MO) was – perhaps still is – a leading member of Fathers4Justice (F4J). He was due to be tried by magistrates for a public order offence. Court managers heard that there might be a demonstration at the court and decided to bar anyone who might be associated with MO unless they were listed as defence witnesses. When MO and others interested in attending his trial – eight to ten people – attempted to enter the court building, only MO and his lay representative were permitted entry. MO applied to the court for those excluded to be admitted on the grounds that he was being denied the right to a public hearing. This application was refused after advice from the justice’s legal adviser, and that a properly authorised court manager had taken the view that there was a risk on grounds of safety and security.


In R (O’Connor and anor) v Aldershot Magistrates’ Court, QB Divisional Court, Fulford LJ, Leggatt J) [2016] EWHC 2792 (Admin), [2017] 1 WLR 2833 MO and two of those accompanying him applied for judicial review of the magistrates’ decision; and the magistrates agreed to adjourn his hearing before them so he could apply. The Divisional Court (the judgment was of both judges) recalled the open justice principle (at [25]) by reference to cases such as Scott & Anor v Scott [1913] UKHL 2, [1913] AC 417, Al Rawi & Ors v The Security Service & Ors [2011] UKSC 34 [2012] AC 531, [2011] 3 WLR 388 and R (Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2012] EWCA Civ 420, [2013] QB 618; and they set out the words of Jeremy Bentham (Collected Works, vol 9, p 493 and vol 4, p 316 (respectively):


In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape have full swing. Only in proportion as publicity has place can any of the checks, applicable to judicial injustice, operate.


Publicity is the very soul of justice. It is the keenest spur to exertion and the surest of all guards against improbity. It keeps the judge himself while trying under trial.


‘Importance of openness and transparency’


And the judgment emphasises (at [25]) that: ‘The authorities also stress the vital importance of openness and transparency to maintaining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system.’


Neither the court administration (HMCTS) had the power to exclude from the court building nor did the court have power to exclude from the court itself. The Divisional Court concluded: if exclusion is ordered, any application to deal with that should be dealt with by the court (not the administration) when it arises; and not by judicial review (see Lord Bridge’s comments in Forster, above):

[34] … Where a member of the public is seeking to attend a particular court hearing and there is a dispute or room for dispute about whether they have the right to do so, that question should be decided by the court concerned at the time the question arises. If a person is wrongly being denied entry, they should not be left in the position of having to incur the substantial burden of bringing proceedings after the event to vindicate their right, when the opportunity to be present has been lost.


And the court which should deal with any such application?


[34] … Furthermore… decisions to exclude members of the public potentially affect the fairness and validity of the court process. It is therefore integral to the court’s ability to control its own process that such decisions are taken by the court.


The justices’ decision to uphold the exclusion from the court building was ‘flawed’ (at [39]) and a declaration that their decision was unlawful followed ([53]).


The Family Court: court ‘to control its own process’


O’Connor was a criminal trial (as was eg Boddington). Forster and Howker (above) concerned what would now be the Upper Tribunal (where, even in child support cases, the open justice point does not arise: all hearings are in open court: Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal)(Social Entitlement Chamber) Rules 2008 r 30(1); Tribunal Procedure (Upper Tribunal) Rules 2008 r 37(1)). Does it make any difference that an application in family proceedings to challenge FPR 2010 r 27.10 is in not in criminal nor tribunal proceedings?


The answer is not clear; though in O’Connor the Divisional Court spoke as if they were envisaging open justice in any court – criminal or civil – being a matter for that individual court to decide. They spoke of attendance as a matter of right at any ‘public court hearing’ (see eg [28]).


The question here is whether a hearing in a family court, specifically of domestic abuse proceedings, may be public; or are they secret unless the rules (not, as the rule-makers see it, either common law or statute) say otherwise. That takes this article back to the examples of those who might want to attend court set out earlier, and who might want to challenge the assertion in FPR 2010 r 27.10 that the family court must sit ‘in private’ save where rules say otherwise.


Domestic abuse: hearing in open court?


Each of the individuals in the categories below believes that the law is that proceedings under Family Law Act 1996 Pt 4 (domestic abuse) and as explained in Parts 1 and 2 of this series should be in open court.


(1)        Friends, family or other contacts of a party to the proceedings


Here application can be made by the applicant (C in the case study above) as was application made by Matthew O’Connor for his supporters in his case above. Issues may be raised as to (1) whether the O’Connor case is binding on a family court, and (2) then the Boddington point arises: can the validity of r 27.10 be challenged in the Family Court? The criminal/family proceedings point may be raised there again by the court or by the other party (B) if he wants the case to remain secret.


A further argument, which C is entitled to raise for those who wish to come into court with her, is that the domestic abuse case, on exactly the same facts (if B is prosecuted) will be in open court (like all criminal proceedings); and B’s name will be published. In both jurisdictions the parties’ child will remain anonymous. This point was considered in an earlier post.


Application by A is as for any application in proceedings under FPR 2010 Pt 18 and (as an urgent interim application, under FPR 2010 Pt 20).


(2)        Non-parties who, out of professional interest, want to attend a case


(3)        A member of the general public who just wants to come into court


For these two categories of would-be court attenders the question is how they can apply to the court. Unquestionably they have the right to challenge whether or not r 27.10 applies to them and to any right they have to attend court. The court procedure for them to make any application is not clear as it is for the party to the case (C above).


Family court application by a non-party


The Boddington case (and see eg White v South Derbyshire District Council [2012] EWHC 3495 (Admin), [2013] PRSR 536, QB Div Ct (Gross LJ, Singh J) and Stannard v Crown Prosecution Service [2019] EWHC 84 (Admin), [2019] 1 WLR 3229 QB Div Ct (Hickinbottom LJ, Whipple J)) involve applications made by parties to proceedings, as does O’Connor. The procedure by which a non-party to proceedings applies for what amounts to a Boddington/O’Connor declaration – say before magistrates sitting in the Family Court – is not clear (the journalist who obtained her reporting order in R (A Child) [2019] EWCA Civ 482 was already entitled to be in court and able to make her own application there).


Armed with the arguments set out in the three parts of this series an applicant can try to persuade the court there is jurisdiction for that applicant to challenge the validity of the secrecy required by the rules in a domestic abuse case. Having established the Boddington/O’Connor jurisdiction to enable the challenge to be made, the second stage is for the applicant (or a party to proceedings already in court) to try to persuade a judge that r 27.10 is unlawful in an appropriate case where it excludes individuals which the common law permits to be in court; and which no substantive law – statute law or common law – has excluded (see the earlier Parts of this series).


David Burrows

9 September 2019



9 September 2019

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


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).