Justice: how open in family proceedings?

‘Advocacy assistance’ and open justice

 

When the Government proposals come on stream – as surely they will, eventually – for instruction of a court advocate to cross-examine a domestic violence complainant (‘advocacy assistance’) where her alleged abuser acts in person, the question of whether the hearings in question are secret (also called ‘confidential’), private or in open court will revive. The media surely will want to see how the new scheme – which had such publicity earlier in the year (see eg Observer/Guardian of 12 February 2017) – is working.

 

The Family Procedure Rules Committee has defined all proceedings covered by the rules for which they are responsible – Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) – as to be heard in ‘private’ (FPR 2010 r 27.10), save where otherwise indicated. The term ‘private’ is not defined. Plainly it is something different from ‘open court’; but does it mean entirely secret, or confidential (see Allan v Clibbery [2002] EWCA Civ 45, [2002] Fam 261 sub nom Clibbery v Allan [2002] 1 FLR 565), or does it mean only that public may be admitted if the court agrees. And if so, are the parties to remain anonymous; is the judgment public; and can anyone see any of the documents generated by the proceedings?

 

Open justice principle in civil and criminal proceedings

 

Much of a definition of ‘private’ turns on application of the open justice principle to a variety of different family proceedings; but it is worth being clear at the outset that this principle applies to procedural issues in family as it does in all court proceedings, including, for example:

 

  • Non-parties being able to read hearing documents (as was the case in Guardian v Westminster (below); and by ‘hearing documents’ is meant those read by the judge in connection with the case: eg skeleton arguments, filed statements etc: per Lord Bingham in Smithkline Beecham v Connaught Laboratories Inc [1999] EWCA Civ 1781, [1999] 4 All ER 498, [2000] FSR 1 per Lord Bingham CJ);
  • Restrictions on release of disclosed documents (‘the implied undertaking’, Riddick v Thames Board Mills [1971] 1 QB 881, CA; and CPR 1998 r 31.22);
  • Publicity or not, for the names of parties (see eg PJS v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2016] UKSC 26, [2016] AC 1081, [2016] 2 FLR 251);
  • Publication of the court’s judgement, anonymised or not (Norman v Norman [2017] EWCA Civ 49)
  • Anonymity for children in public proceedings (JX MX v Dartford & Gravesham NHS Trust & Ors [2015] EWCA Civ 96, [2015] 1 WLR 3647);
  • Anonymity of witnesses, expert witnesses etc (Attorney General v Leveller Magazine Ltd[1979] AC 440; Khuja (below);
  • The Art 8 rights of children balanced against those (Art 10 and Human Rights Act 1998 s 12(4)) of the press (Re S (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) [2004] UKHL 47, [2005] 1 AC 593, [2005] 1 FLR 591; PJS (above)).

 

Space does not permit that all of these subjects be covered here; but the same principles recur. For example in PJS Lady Hale made comments on the importance of consideration of the Art 8 rights of children affected, where publicity is concerned; and Guardian v Westminster (above) dealt with whether the Guardian – after the hearing of an extradition case – could see papers read by the court (yes they could). Neither case was directly concerned with whether anyone could attend a hearing in open court.

 

The Humpty-Dumpty question: open court, private or secret

 

The issues raised by this article require a return to what is meant by (1) ‘open court’, (2) ‘private’ (or ‘chambers’) hearings and (3) secret hearings (formerly called ‘in camera’). This is territory tramped over by a variety case law and statutory feet (and see Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss P and Humpty Dumpty (below)); but the starting point is the common law. This was recently explained by Lord Sumption (with whom his four Supreme Court justice colleagues agreed) in Khuja v Times Newspapers Ltd [2017] UKSC 49:

 

[12] With limited exceptions, the English courts administer judgment in public, at hearings which anyone may attend within the limits of the court’s capacity and which the press may report. In the leading case, Scott v Scott [1913] AC 417, public hearings were described by Lord Loreburn (p 445) as the ‘inveterate rule’ and the historical record bears this out. In the common law courts the practice can be dated back to the origins of the court system.

 

It is the ‘limited’ exceptions with which this article is concerned; for the ‘open justice principle’ (as Toulson LJ defined it in R (Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court (Article 19 intervening) [2012] EWCA Civ 420, [2013] QB 618, [2012] 3 WLR 1343) probably runs parallel with the origins and history of the court system itself.

 

In Scott (a nullity case which should have been heard in open court) Earl Loreburn dealt with the main exceptions to the open justice principle as follows (at [1913] AC 417 at 445:

 

I cannot think that the High Court has an unqualified power in its discretion to hear civil proceedings with closed doors. The inveterate rule is that justice shall be administered in open Court. I do not speak of the parental jurisdiction regarding lunatics or wards of Court, or of what may be done in chambers, which is a distinct and by no means short subject, or of special statutory restrictions. I speak of the trial of actions including petitions for divorce or nullity in the High Court…

 

He added, as did other of their lordships, where ‘the subject-matter of the action would be destroyed by a hearing in open Court, as in a case of some secret process of manufacture, the doors may be closed’. To deny this might be to deny justice: ‘an aggrieved person, entitled to protection against one man who had stolen his secret, would not ask for it on the terms that the secret was to be communicated to all the world. There would be in effect a denial of justice.’

 

The ‘parental jurisdiction’, which subsists in proceedings under Children Act 1989 and in many cases in the Court of Protection (though open court principles are being developed there) – that is, Lord Sumption’s ‘exceptions’ – was explained by Viscount Haldane LC (at 437) as follows:

 

… The exceptions are themselves the outcome of a yet more fundamental principle that the chief object of Courts of justice must be to secure that justice is done. In the two cases of wards of Court and of lunatics the Court is really sitting primarily to guard the interests of the ward or the lunatic. Its jurisdiction is in this respect parental and administrative, and the disposal of controverted questions is an incident only in the jurisdiction. It may often be necessary, in order to attain its primary object, that the Court should exclude the public. The broad principle which ordinarily governs it therefore yields to the paramount duty, which is the care of the ward or the lunatic.

 

He went on to deal with the ‘secret process’ point, and concluded:

 

… As the paramount object must always be to do justice, the general rule as to publicity, after all only the means to an end, must accordingly yield. But the burden lies on those seeking to displace its application in the particular case to make out that the ordinary rule must as of necessity be superseded by this paramount consideration. The question is by no means one which, consistently with the spirit of our jurisprudence, can be dealt with by the judge as resting in his mere discretion as to what is expedient. The latter must treat it as one of principle, and as turning, not on convenience, but on necessity.

 

The modern law

 

Starting from the open justice principle, as stated in Scott and reaffirmed countless times since then, what may be said to be the modern exceptions.

 

In criminal proceedings the principle in relation to freedom of expression (European Convention 1950 Art 10) has been held to override the interests of a child’s right to protection of family life (Re S (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) [2004] UKHL 47, [2005] 1 AC 593, [2005] 1 FLR 591; R (Trinity Mirror) v Croydon Crown Court [2008] EWCA Crim 50, [2008] QB 770).

 

In civil proceedings generally Administration of Justice Act 1960 s 12 provides that just because a court is sitting in private does not mean that publicity will be a contempt of court except in the case of a list in s 12(1). These would have been recognised by their lordships in Scott (subject to addition of national security (which might have occurred to them in 1914, the year after Scott was decided) and of modern statutory references). The list in s 12(1) is as follows:

 

(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…;

(c)where the court sits in private for reasons of national security during that part of the proceedings about which the information in question is published;

(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.

 

CPR 1998 r 39.2(3) provides a similar list to which only are added (c), (e) and (f) (below):

 

(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)it involves uncontentious matters arising in the administration of trusts or in the administration of a deceased person’s estate; or

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

 

For family proceedings covered by Family Procedure Rules 2010, the rules committee have asserted, somewhat inscrutably:

 

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.

 

Neither this rule, nor either of s 12(1) or r 39.2(3) (nor CPR 1998 as a whole) defines what is meant by ‘private’, save to say that the public have no right to be present (as distinct from, presumably, the right to ask to be present?). The rule must also be read subject to the right of ‘accredited representatives’ of the press and other media and others, with permission, to be in court for private hearings (r 27.11(2)(f) and (g)).

 

The question remains: is there any law on what is meant by ‘private’; and if so can the rules committee override that law? The seeker for an answer to that question goes back, again, to the common law.

 

Meaning of ‘private’

 

As the then new CPR 1998 (in accordance with Civil Procedure Act 1997) were approaching a final draft, the committee chairman, Lord Woolf MR (with Aldous and Chadwick LJJ: it was a judgement of the court) considered the meaning of open court and ‘chambers’ hearings in Hodgson v Imperial Tobacco Ltd [1998] 1 WLR 1056 (judgment: 12 February 1998). The court’s conclusion was that it was open to a party to publish what was said in chambers (ie ‘in private’: see 1070) unless the case comes within those listed in s 12(1).

 

Proceedings excluded from publication (AJA 1960 s 12(1)) are described as ‘secret’ (emphases supplied by the judges):

 

As [AJA 1960 s 12(1)] makes clear, the publication of information relating to proceedings held in private (i.e. chambers) is not in itself contempt except in the specific cases identified in s 12(1) (which do not apply here) unless the court makes an order prohibiting publication when it has “power to do so” (s 12(1)(e)). Nor is the publication of the whole or part of the order made by a court sitting in private a contempt (s 12(2)). The general position is that any judgment including a judgment in chambers is normally a public document….

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 v. Scott   [1913] AC 417 or the court sits in chambers and the case falls in the categories specified in section 12(1) of the Act of 1960 (which include issues involving children, national security, secret processes and the like). Section 12(1) also refers to the court having prohibited publication. Such proceedings are appropriately described as secret; proceedings in chambers otherwise are not appropriately so described.

 

As can be seen the Court of Appeal distinguishes between hearings ‘in private’ (or in chambers) where information can be published and the public may be admitted; and hearings ‘in secret’ (formerly in camera) which are those to which the exceptions in Scott and s 12(1) apply.

 

Allan v Clibbery: ‘private’ and Family Law Act 1996 Part 4

 

What are ‘chambers’ (ie ‘private’) hearings? Of chambers hearings the Court of Appeal in Hodgson said (at 1072):

 

In relation to hearings in chambers … The public has no right to attend hearings in chambers because of the nature of the work transacted in chambers and because of the physical restrictions on the room available but, if requested, permission should be granted to attend when and to the extent that this is practical.

 

And this is what r 27.10(2) appears, almost exactly, to say: ‘no right to be present’; and, as will be seen, this is the formula preferred by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss P in a later constitution of the Court of Appeal (Allan v Clibbery [2002] EWCA Civ 45, [2002] Fam 261 sub nom Clibbery v Allan [2002] 1 FLR 565).

 

Allan v Clibbery (above) remains the main source for family lawyers considering open justice and the principles on which it is based. It is also of relevance to the question of press attendance at hearings of, or publicity arising from, cases under Family Law Act 1996 Pt 4 (which include Allan v Clibbery itself and the cases of alleged abusers cross-examining complainants in person). It was a case under Pt 4, where Ms Clibbery published information and documents arising from the case to, amongst others, the Daily Mail. On appeal from Munby J, the Court of Appeal agreed with him in the result and held that she could publicise information and certain documents from the proceedings; though the proceedings should have been held, on Dame Elizabeth’s definition, ‘in private’.

 

There is no reason which that definition should not be the same in FPR 2010; so that the exception occurs for ‘secret’ hearings cases, that is those listed in AJA 1960 s 12(1).

 

Common law and open justice

 

The starting point for a review of the law on open justice, and private’ or ‘secret’ (or ‘confidential’) hearings, must be Toulson LJ in the Court of Appeal in Guardian v Westminster (above) (subsequently approved by Supreme Court in eg A v British Broadcasting Corporation [2014] UKSC 25, [2015] 1 AC 558). He explained the status in law of the open justice principle as follows:

 

[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.

 

Generally speaking a fundamental rights – and as a common law principle open justice has been confirmed by European Convention 1950 Art 6.1 – cannot be overridden, even by Parliament, by ‘general or ambiguous words’ (R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, exp Simms [1999] UKHL 33; [2000] 2 AC 115) This was explained by Lord Hoffman in exp Simms (at [2000] 2 AC 115 at 131) as follows:

 

Fundamental rights cannot be overridden by general or ambiguous words. This is because there is too great a risk that the full implications of their unqualified meaning may have passed unnoticed in the democratic process. In the absence of express language or necessary implication to the contrary, the courts therefore presume that even the most general words were intended to be subject to the basic rights of the individual.

 

In Allan v Clibbery Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss P referred to Scott, Administration of Justice Act 1960 s 12(1), Hodgson v Imperial (above) and CPR 1998 r 39.2(3). Whilst she concluded that the then Family Proceedings Rules 1991 were intra vires the then rule-makers, she also concluded on terminology that the different types of court hearing broke down into open court, private and confidential. Dame Elizabeth said:

 

[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.

 

On this basis, the Family Law Act 1996 Pt 4 proceedings were ‘in private’ but not confidential. Miss Clibbery was therefore permitted to release documents from the proceedings to the waiting press (as she had already done). Mr Allan’s injunction was discharged. In Norman v Norman [2017] EWCA Civ 49 Lewison LJ described that outcome and the meaning of ‘private’ (in the context of proceedings being reported) as follows:

 

[85] … The mere fact that proceedings are heard in private does not of itself prohibit publication of what happens in those proceedings: Clibbery v Allan [2002] EWCA Civ 45, [2002] Fam 261 at [17] and [51]. However, the fact that parties are required to make full and frank disclosure of financial information may justify reporting restrictions relating to that information: Clibbery v Allan at [73] and [79]. But there is no blanket ban: Clibbery v Allan at [83].

 

The Court of Appeal definition is the common law which applies to family as to all other types of proceedings. As ever, a rule cannot make, still less override, the law (Jaffray v The Society of Lloyds [2007] EWCA Civ 586), [2008] 1 WLR 75); and nothing was said of all this in the statute which empowers the rule-makers (Courts Act 2003 ss 75 and 76). Either on this basis or under exp Simms principles, the rule-makers – who are not Parliament – cannot override a common law principle. It may be worth adding that FPR 2010 are made by the negative resolution procedure (Courts Act 2003 s 79(6)) so they do not need formal approval by Parliament. Mostyn J’s comment in Appleton & Anor v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam), [2016] 2 FLR 1 – that ‘[14] …. Parliament when passing the rules specifically maintained [ancillary relief] proceedings as private, and denied members of the public admission to them’ must be read with s 79(6) in mind.

 

Even if the rule-makers do have a power to override the common law by r 27.10, the drafting of the rule is ambiguous. Rue 27.10 says the same as the Court of Appeal said in Hodgson as to what is the meaning of ‘chambers’; and that means something different from ‘secret’ proceedings. ‘Secret’ proceedings are those covered by the exceptions which run in a line from Scott, through AJA 1960 s 12(1) to the modern CPR 1998 r 39.2(3). Other proceedings under FPR 2010 which are not expressly open court (such as divorce and committal) are ‘private’. As Hodgson and Allan v Clibbery both say, they are ‘in chambers’ but, space permitting, the public may be admitted; save for those listed in s 12(1) which are ‘secret’.

 

Allegations of a ‘criminal nature’

 

For family proceedings, as for all others, perhaps the last word can go to Lord Atkinson in Scott (cited by Lord Sumption as a conclusion to the passage above):

 

[12] As Lord Atkinson observed in [Scott] at p 463, this may produce inconvenience and even injustice to individuals: ‘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.’

 

And as to allegations ‘of a criminal nature’: it must be recalled that under Prison and Courts Bill cl 47 (which is the proposed statutory amendment with which this article begins) it is allegations which have been the subject of existing findings by a court – criminal or in injunction proceedings – which forms the basis of an application for advocacy assistance.

 

Surely there is no reason why cases where such allegations are being made should not be open to public scrutiny (if anyone is interested to attend)? After all, the origin of the Scott case was that Mrs Scott wanted her former husband’s family to understand the true nature of what she had alleged about him, and which the court had found, against him. The modern equivalent of Mrs Scott might be the physically abused woman.

 

Scott makes clear that the presumption is that all cases will be heard in open court. As Viscount Haldane states (see passage above): the burden is on anyone ‘seeking to displace [the presumption] in the particular case to make out that the ordinary rule must as of necessity be superseded’. And then, he goes on, it is not a matter of judicial discretion was to whether an application for privacy is allowed but one of legal principle (see eg R v Legal Aid Board (exp Kiam Todner (a firm)) [1999] QB 966, [1998] 3 WLR 925, CA; Spencer v Spencer [2009] EWHC 1529 (Fam), [2009] 2 FLR 1416, Munby J). Just because the parties agree to exclude the press does not mean the court should go along with them.

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Rights: privacy, anonymity and freedom of expression on family cases

‘Open justice’ in family proceedings

 

As a High Court judge (Mostyn J) has commented (in Appleton & Anor v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam), [2016] 2 FLR 1) rights to open justice in family proceedings are a mess; though – sad to say, and as will be seen below (the Carmarthenshire case) – he has done his own bit to stir the muddled pot.

 

Family lawyers are debating whether financial relief hearings (an important part of the family courts’ work) should be in open court or in private (as FPR 2010 r 27.10 – though without any statutory or common law underlay) says they must be. Different Family Division judges take different views (and Mostyn J is one of the noisier ones on the subject).

 

Three cases in the last month remind lawyers generally of the variety of application of open justice principles:

 

  • The predominant issue is whether a case should be heard in public as common law has long required (Scott & Anor v Scott [1913] UKHL 2, [1913] AC 417; and see eg ‘To be heard in the dining hall…’: Scott 100 years on). Subsidiary to this are, for exampe:
  • Anonymity for a party to proceedings; or to a witness or others (eg expert witnesses, social workers etc) involved in the case (eg Khuja below);
  • Release of court and other hearing documents (a consequence of the Carmathen case below);
  • Publicity for a private (eg children) case (and the balance to be struck between privacy (European Convention 1950 Art 8) and freedom of expression (Art 10) (eg Southend case below).

 

Khuja : ‘what’s in a name?

 

Khuja v Times Newspapers Ltd [2017] UKSC 49 relates to the open justice principle and a person’s involvement – though not charged – in criminal proceedings. Charges arose from facts which are directly of concern to family lawyers, namely child sexual abuse (see eg Birmingham City Council v Riaz & Ors [2014] EWHC 4247 (Fam), [2015] 2 FLR 763 Keehan J). As Lord Sumption said (giving judgement for the 5:2 justice majority):

 

[1] For some years The Times and other media organisations have taken a close interest in investigating and reporting on allegations that the police and child protection authorities have failed adequately to confront a pattern of crime involving the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young teenage girls by older men. It need hardly be said that this is a subject of serious public concern. It has given rise to a number of government-ordered national inquiries, a review of standards of protection in children’s homes, and substantial changes in the procedures of the police and prosecuting authorities for handling such cases.

 

Nine men were tried on charges involving organised child sex in the Oxford area. Seven men were convicted. Khuja had been arrested, but not charged. After his release without charge, the newspapers successfully applied to lift an order preventing his identification. Khuja wanted to maintain a reporting restrictions order. The newspapers said that Khuja was ‘someone suspected by the police of being involved in sexual offences against children’. They wished to publish information about him ‘confined to material derived from the proceedings at the trial’ (§[4]).

 

The majority (Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale and Lords Sumption, Clarke and Reed: Lords Kerr and Wilson were the minority) noted that the appellant was seeking to prohibit the reporting of matters discussed at public trial. These were not matters where he had any reasonable expectation of privacy. The impact on the appellant’s family life is indirect and incidental: neither he nor his family participated in any capacity at trial, and nothing that was said at trial related to his family.

 

The public interest in allowing the press reporting of court proceedings extends to the appellant’s identity, said Lord Sumption. Media reporting of cases depends on the right of the public to be informed about public acts of the state, balanced against the law’s recognition that how a story is presented is a matter of editorial judgment.

 

Finally, what does a name matter? ‘What’s in a name? asked Lord Rodger in Re Guardian News and Media Ltd [2010] UKSC 1, [2010] 2 AC 697 (and see Lord Sumption at §[29]). Lord Rodger answered himself:

 

‘A lot’, the press would answer. This is because stories about particular individuals are simply much more attractive to readers than stories about unidentified people. It is just human nature. And this is why, of course, even when reporting major disasters, journalists usually look for a story about how particular individuals are affected. Writing stories which capture the attention of readers is a matter of reporting technique, and the European court holds that article 10 protects not only the substance of ideas and information but also the form in which they are conveyed: News Verlags GmbH & Co KG v Austria (2000) 31 EHRR 246, 256, §[39] … More succinctly, Lord Hoffmann observed in Campbell v MGN Ltd [2004] 2 AC 457, 474, §[59], ‘judges are not newspaper editors’.

 

Parents’ right to petition Parliament: Southend case

 

In Southend Borough Council v CO [2017] EWHC 1949 (Fam) MacDonald J considered a case in which parents of two children on whom placement orders had been made had publicised information about them on Facebook and had organised a petition on Change.org.  (Whether the mother had appealed against the placement order was not entirely clear to the judge.) By the time he came to deal with the case the parents – representing themselves – had agreed to the local authority’s application that information be removed from Facebook and other media. However, the mother insisted on their right to pursue their petition ‘addressed to the United Kingdom Parliament and the Prime Minister’. The consequences of any such right for freedom of expression was the issue on which MacDonald J gave judgment.

 

MacDonald J described Change.org as a ‘website that allows people or organisations to start a petition. Once a petition is started, members of the public can sign the petition electronically subject to providing their first and last name, their email address and their postcode’ (§[9]). It has ‘community guidelines’ which include particular reference to safeguarding children and their protection.

 

The local authority based their application on their concern to protect a child’s private life. The mother wanted the petition to remain in place ‘so that she could have her say with respect to a decision that she does not agree with’ (§[16]).

 

After an extensive review of the law, the judge agreed with the mother. The reporting restrictions order remained to the extent agreed between the parties, but not including any restriction on the mother’s right by her petition to advertise her disagreement with the court’s placement order decisions.

 

Right to freedom of expression

 

On the facts of this case (not as a general approach to on-line petitions: §[66]) the judge set out his decision at §[62]. He balanced the rights of the parents to freedom of expression under Convention Art 10 (especially ‘parents who are the subject of state intervention being able to express their views about, the constitutional importance of the right to petition Parliament and the Government for redress with respect to a personal grievance and the importance of the ability of a parent to make clear who is speaking out or seeking to petition for redress’) against the Art 8 right of the children. He applied the ‘ultimate balancing test’ or proportionality (per Lord Steyn in Re S (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) [2004] UKHL 47, [2005] 1 AC 593, [2005] 1 FLR 591 at §[17]) and held that:

 

[62] … It cannot be said in this case that compelling the parents to take down their online petition directed at Parliament and Government, or compelling them to remove from the petition the mother’s name and the responses which utilise the forenames of the children, represents a proportionate response to the risk to the psychological integrity, personal development, development of social relationships and physical and social identity of the children presented by the limited amount of information concerning the children that the petition now contains.

 

Release of hearings documents

 

The third case is little more than a post-script in all this; but it provides a useful illustration of some of the points considered in ‘Release of court hearing documents’. What documents – when and why? – may a court release to non-parties. What rights to freedom of expression (European Convention 1950 Art 10) do parents have?

 

In Carmarthen County Council v Y and others [2017] EWFC 36 (30 June 2017), Mostyn J considered a preliminary fact-finding issue in children proceedings (the heading to the case hints that it is care proceedings, but he does not say so). This might have been clearer if Mostyn J had remembered – or been reminded by one of the nine barristers in court – of the following comment of his:

 

[4] For an exhaustively full account of the background reference should be made to the chronology prepared by junior counsel for the local authority, which has left no stone unturned. I am grateful for the preparation of that very useful document.

 

But this judge has already made clear that he does not consider that documents in family proceedings should be released (DL v SL [2015] EWHC 2621 (Fam) sub nom L v L (Ancillary Relief Proceedings: Anonymity) [2016] WLR 1259, Mostyn J at §[16]). In law, there are real question on this as explained in ‘Release of court hearing documents’ (above). Thus, in Appleton v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam); [2016] 2 FLR 1, Mostyn J was dealing with an application by the press for reporting restrictions to be lifted for the ancillary relief hearing of well-known musicians (and see Mostyn J in DL v SL [2015] EWHC 2621 (Fam); [2016] 2 FLR 552, also reported as L v L (Ancillary Relief Proceedings: Anonymity)  [2016] 1 WLR 1259). Save to a very limited extent (eg photographs of arrival at court) a reporting restrictions order was retained. Mostyn J [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam) at [12] and [13], adopts Sir Mark’s “watchdog” role for the press:

 

[13] … Further the press are not allowed any access to documents whatsoever – see FPR  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.

 

I think Lords Scarman and Bingham – and probably Sir James Munby P (see eg Norfolk County Council v Webster and Others [2006] EWHC 2898 (Fam), [2007] 2 FLR 415, Munby J – would have reminded Mostyn J of the importance of helping the press, in its ‘watchdog role’ – to make sense of proceedings. Transparency in the family courts remains a poor shadow of what it could be if – even if they are let in – the media and public can make no sense of the facts of what is going on.

 

And in terms of rights? The media have rights to freedom of expression as much as do parents to petition parliament; so long as, in each case, the children invloved remain anonymous.

CLARITY FIRST: DEAR TRANSPARENCY PROJECT…

Clarity first

Dear Transparency Project (http://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/)

I admire what you aim to do; though, as you know, I think your title – ‘transparency’ – is a euphemism. Like the President of the Family Division I think you look through the family law procedural telescope from the wrong end (https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/transparency-made-simple/) and think that, because it is family proceedings they must be held in private (see discussion of the illegality of Family Procedure Rules 2010 (‘FPR 2010’) r 27.10(1) (below)).

All family courts, like any court in England, in law must be open, subject to certain well-known exceptions (the most obvious being children law, which – I entirely understand – takes up a significant proportion of the work of family courts). Privacy is the exception, and must be justified. This has been explained time and again by the judges, most recently in eg A v British Broadcasting Corporation [2014] UKSC 25. Family lawyers (backed up, to their shame, by their failure to challenge eg FPR 2010 r 27.10) seem to think they are immune from the rule of the common law.

The modern view amongst family lawyers is, entirely correctly, that there should be ‘transparency’. Courts must be open. The press and public must be allowed in – the open justice principle (OJP) – save in the very small number of exceptions identified in Civil Procedure Rules 1998 r 39.2(3) and explained in such cases as Scott & Anor v Scott [1913] UKHL 2, [1913] AC 417 through to A v British Broadcasting Corporation [2014] UKSC 25, and any number of high authorities before, since and in between. The OJP rules: Kennedy v The Charity Commission [2014] UKSC 20. And most of these exceptions are in the range of family proceedings (though the recent case in which the Court of Appeal explained the rules concerned a child in civil court proceedings: JX MX v Dartford & Gravesham NHS Trust & Ors [2015] EWCA Civ 96; and see https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/a-simple-law-for-privacy-in-children-cases/).

Time to clean up the kitchen

But first, family lawyers, would it not be best if we look around at the kitchen into which the press and public are being so earnestly invited. I enter this caution, not because I do not agree with the OJP, subject to the important exceptions referred to in the cases above. I suggest caution because I fear that the public may be shocked by the grease and grubby black bugs it finds hidden away in the family court kitchen. Its procedural larders hide a variety of illegality and lack of clarity grimes over many parts of its stone-flagged floors.

If I ruled the family law world I’d want to be seen to be sorting out these failings in the family law system as I opened it up – according to what I understood to be the law – to the press and public. I would want to see, not that the substantive law on which it is based is changed – that is a law reform project for another day; but to see that its procedure and administration was lawful and expressed in clear terms.

Illegality and unlawfulness

I use ‘illegality’ in the sense it occurs in administrative law. Lord Diplock in House of Lords characterised it as one of the ‘grounds upon which administrative action is subject to control by judicial review’, that is the foundations of testing the vires (powers of administrators) of public bodies (Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service [1984] UKHL 9 [1985] AC 374):

By “illegality” as a ground for judicial review I mean that the decision-maker must understand correctly the law that regulates his decision-making power and must give effect to it. Whether he has or not is par excellence a justiciable question to be decided, in the event of dispute, by those persons, the judges, by whom the judicial power of the state is exercisable.

By ‘clarity’ I mean – er – ‘clarity’ (https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/transparency-made-simple/); or, more especially, that a law text is capable of being understood by the averagely intelligent layperson (‘AILP’). I do not mean that a text is reduced, like Orwell’s Newspeak, to its lowest common denominator. I trust most readers to be able to read a dictionary. An easy example of this is the change from garnishee to ‘third party debt order’.[1] Both start as meaningless, I suspect, to most lay readers, but I bet that most dictionaries will have ‘garnishee’ and a definition; but not a definition of ‘third party debt orders’. Being a composite term, it is likely that TPDOs will be hard to define from most dictionaries.

Clarity in a text does not mean that a reader should be patronised. It is a matter of good manners and common sense; and for lawyers it means respect for the rule of law, and of lawfulness. Lack of clarity is part of the lawlessness of family law procedure, so I will take ‘clarity’ first as a general subject, and then return to other aspects of illegality.

Clarity

The FPR 2010 rule-makers (the Family Procedure Rules Committee (FPRC)) derive their powers from Courts Act 2003 ss 75 and 76. It has no powers outside those provided to it by ss 75 and 76. Section 75(5) requires FPRC to exercise its powers to make rules –

(5) … with a view to securing that—

(a) the family justice system is accessible, fair and efficient, and

(b) the rules are both simple and simply expressed.

This is a highly subjective test; but to approach an understanding of it, it becomes necessary to define the AILP. Have FPRC done that? I doubt it. It is a test family lawyers must undertake soon. Till then, take for example, the proposed amendment as to FPR 2010 (intended as Part 3A). These amendments are intended to provide for the participation in family proceedings of children and ‘vulnerable witnesses’ (and see eg  http://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/guest-post-by-david-burrows-vulnerable-individuals-and-children-in-family-proceedings/ and http://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/draft-rules-for-vulnerable-persons-in-family-proceedings#.VdDG8_mqqko). I defy most readers to understand the draft. Even the term ‘vulnerable’ is not defined; and some of the language is needlessly ponderous.

And do the rule-makers seriously expect the subjects of the draft – ‘vulnerable’ individuals and older children in family proceedings – to understand them? If they do, I fear they have failed my common sense and good manners test.

To make sense of s 75(5) an imaginary reader must be defined. Any text which is not regarded as ‘simple’ to him or her is unlawful: that is the statutory criterion. It is the law. It is not a sort of voluntary extra for FPRC to have in mind or not, according to the prevailing mood of the committee membership.

The importance of a clarity test, in more abstract terms, was explained by Lord Bingham as the first rule of his ‘Rule of law’ (http://www.cpl.law.cam.ac.uk/past_activities/the_rule_of_law_text_transcript.php): namely that –

… 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.

That was in pre-Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 days. I wonder if Lord Bingham’s assumption that legal advice should always be available is tenable today? If so the need for clarity only becomes the more pressing still.

I doubt that much of family law procedural law is ‘simple’, ‘simply expressed’ (s 75(5)) or ‘intelligible and clear’ (in Lord Bingham’s terms). If that is the case then all provisions which are not ‘clear’ are outside the law as set down in s 75(5). Each of those not-‘simple’ rules are a cockroach in the family law kitchen into which the public is being welcomed. Cock-roaches should not be in any kitchen, whether or not it is open to the public.

Unlawfulness

Let’s assume, for now, that the rules are all set down in clear language. Even then, I believe, there are a number which are unlawful.

The easiest to explain is that on which the Transparency Project is based, namely FPR 2010 r 27.10. The majority of family lawyers seem to accept that r 27.10 somehow represents the law. Under the heading ‘Hearings in private’ the rule starts: ‘(1) Proceedings to which these rules apply [ie the vast majority of family proceedings in family courts] will be held in private, except…’; and then two exceptions are set out: that the court otherwise orders, or that another ‘enactment’ (in law that means statutes, rules, regulations and practice directions) ‘provides otherwise’.

Only eight years before FPR 2010 came into effect the Court of Appeal in Allan v Clibbery [2002] EWCA Civ 45, [2002] Fam 261, [2002] 1 FLR 565 took a lot of trouble to explain why proceedings under Family Law Act 1996 Part 4 (ie ‘family proceedings’ in terms of r 27.10) were public, certainly to the extent of release to the press of documents arising in them. For family lawyers rules on this subject are governed by the common law (best found as codified in Civil Procedure Rules 1998 r 31.21).

It is basic law that a rule, like r 27.10, cannot override the law (see eg Jaffray v The Society of Lloyds [2007] EWCA Civ 586). The law is (for family lawyers) still the common law and as explained in Allan v Clibbery (above). Rule 27.10(1) cannot reverse the Court of Appeal decision. It is blatantly outside the law, yet it remains part of the rules made by FPRC.

FPR 2010 rr 9.14(4) and 9.16(1) (no disclosure save by Form E or as directed by the court) are so obviously unlawful in the light of MCA 1973 s 25(1) and (2) as explained by the House of Lords Livesey (formerly Jenkins) v Jenkins [1985] AC 424, [1985] FLR 813, that no one takes any notice of the two provisions. They should not be there; and that they are ignored is not a good advertisement for rule-making, and another cockroach in the kitchen.

A letter written by one spouse (or their lawyer) to the other in an attempt to settle a case (normally confidential as between the two of them under without prejudice rule immunity (WPRI); and known as a Calderbank letter, after a Court of Appeal case) can be shown to the court when it comes to costs. The aim is to show reasonable the spouse who sent the letter has been in his/her attempts to settle a case. FPR 2010 r 28.3(8) seeks to reverse this process and to make it unlawful. This may breach principles of public policy – can a rule change ‘public policy’: I only ask? – as set out by the House of Lords in Rush & Tompkins Ltd v Greater London Council [1989] AC 1280. That case said WPRI was ‘founded on the public policy of encouraging litigants to settle their differences rather than litigate them to a finish’. The case of Calderbank v Calderbank [1976] Fam 93, [1975] 3 WLR 586 explains how this works in the case of costs. Rule 28.3(8) is of dubious legality. No family lawyer, as far as I know, has challenged that legality (eg under principles set out in Boddington v British Transport Police [1998] UKHL 13; [1999] 2 AC 143).

Of cockroaches and grease in the family law kitchen

So, my friends, before too much fuss about letting the press and public in is made, it would surely be worth trying to clean up the procedural law kitchen. Illegality cockroaches and lack-of-simplicity grease must go. I would make clear and fully intelligible to the AILP the texts – rules and practice directions – on which family law procedure is based (I leave statute law for now). In doing so I would have Lord Bingham in mind and keep a careful eye on Courts Act 2003 s 75(5).

In doing that, I would make certain that every rule in FPR 2010 was in accordance with the law (statute and common law). Procedure serves the law. It is therefore necessary first to define the law and then to ensure that procedure follows it. It is Parliament and, failing that, the judges, who together make the law; not (as Dicey explained) civil servants and administrators (such as FPRC).

[1] See ‘Does a bell toll for garnishee’ [2002] Family Law David Burrows