Lord Justice James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, has continued his campaign for more transparency in the family courts, which usually hold hearings in private.
Sir James campaigned to “let the glare of publicity into the family courts” following a recent landmark ruling where he refused to prohibit a father from broadcasting on Facebook and YouTube footage of social services staff taking his newborn child into care.
The local authority had applied for an injunction to prohibit the father uploading the footage on the basis that the material could identify the child as being subject to care proceedings. Sir James approved the order banning the naming of the child, but refused to ban the publication of images or footage.
Sir James insisted that there was a public interest in refusing that aspect of the injunction in order to stimulate open and public debate over the work of social services departments and care proceedings in general, even though the footage included images of the baby whose name would nevertheless remain private.
In relation to the challenges in controlling what is uploaded online, the judge took a forward thinking approach, commenting that “the internet allows anyone, effectively at the click of a mouse, to publish whatever they wish to the entire world – or at least to everyone who has access to the internet … the internet is awash with material couched in the most exaggerated, extreme, offensive and often defamatory terms, much of which has only a tenuous connection with objectively verifiable truth”. Sir James recognised that this poses “enormous challenges” but insisted that “the law must develop and adapt, as it always has done down the years in response to other revolutionary technologies … We must not simply throw up our hands in despair and moan that the internet is uncontrollable. Nor can we simply abandon basic legal principles”.
Sir James published guidelines in July setting out how similar cases should be made public, absent compelling reasons not to. The initiative is intended to extend to private family cases, where the outcome of disputes may also be published if they are deemed to be in the public interest, or simply if a request by the media or one of the parties for publication is granted. Publication of material which is likely, or intended, to identify a child remains prohibited while children proceedings are live, although this prohibition ceases to bite once the proceedings have been concluded.
The expectation is therefore that there will be an increase in judgments that are available to be published, although some may still be anonymised in order to protect the privacy of children and vulnerable adults.