“Certain family court hearings to take place in public in radical trial” claimed the Guardian headline on the night before Christmas Eve.

“James Munby, head of high court’s family division, to continue far-reaching reforms to bring more transparency to the system” continued the sub-heading of Sandra Laville’s piece.

The report stated that: “Family court hearings are to be held in public for the first time” before specifying that “Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division of the High Court, is to continue far-reaching reforms to bring more transparency to the system in 2017 by launching a trial in which some types of hearings would be held in public”.

Yet on closer inspection, this claim of an imminent consultation in the New Year announcing a new pilot is not supported by reference to any verifiable, contemporaneous source, let alone linked to something concrete like a new announcement from the Ministry of Justice.

When the report is unpicked, “the Guardian understands” (at line 3) doesn’t actually seem to be based on any facts at all beyond the net effect of:

  • The President’s 2014 ‘Next Steps’ consultation on opening up the family courts that specifically sought ‘preliminary pre-consultation views’ on piloting some family hearings in open court and certain documents being routinely disclosed to journalists. Our response is here [EDITED LR, and we gathered together other responses in a blog post at the time here]. The consultation was reported extensively at the time but no next steps for family courts were announced. The President later seemed to take a step sideways by announcing the (still continuing) pilot of open hearings in the Court of Protection instead.
  • Combined with the fact thata spokesman for the judicial communications office said Munby intended to issue further guidance on the issues raised in his August 2014 consultation on transparency in the new year” (final sentence)
  • And what look like re-cycled 2014 quotes in response to Next Steps from a family solicitor who at that time was the chair of Resolution, about the widespread opposition from family justice professional bodies to the proposals that existed;
  • As well as quotes from Lucy Reed, Chair of the Transparency Project and Dr Julie Doughty (undertaking research funded by the Nuffield Foundation and also, separately, a member of the Transparency Project) which were not given in response to any new announcement.

If The Guardian did get their information from a credible source who is not prepared to go on record, they don’t say so. It is of course possible someone privy to some initial canvassing by the President has tipped off The Guardian on information the President was not yet ready to announce publicly but that will follow in the form of a new consultation on certain family cases being heard in open court (as in the Court of Protection now).

Alternatively, this may simply be an opinion piece that weaves together a number of strands with a headline that overreaches itself, to imply a new announcement. When no ‘next steps’ were announced in response to the 2014 consultation (even a year on) but a pilot of hearings in public began in a differrnt court, some commentators wondered if this would preface a similar trial in the family courts.

We have emailed Sandra Laville to ask for clarification*. In the meantime we concur with Philip Marshall QC, Chair of the Family Law Bar Association:

FLBA Retweeted PJM QC “The FLBA is not aware of any announcement or new consultation issued by the President. This is a non-news story“.


 *Edited 30.12.2016 3.20 pm. With thanks to Sandra Laville at The Guardian who has replied to our query, we understand that she has been informed unofficially that the ‘Next Steps’ consultation is to be followed up in 2017.