Judge calls for radical action to end secrecy of family courts

Jonathan Ames, David Brown, The Times
October 28, 2021

A senior judge has called for an end to secrecy in family cases in the biggest overhaul of court reporting in 60 years.

Sir Andrew McFarlane’s plan would create a presumption of “openness and transparency” in all family court cases, meaning, for example, that financial information in high-profile divorces could be made public.

McFarlane, 67, president of the High Court family division, said reforms in 2009 to encourage greater reporting of family courts had failed and that more radical action was needed.

Prior to the publication this morning of his report, the judge said “there can be no more draconian decision than the removal of someone’s children but at the moment public understanding of that process is very slight”.

McFarlane said he was concerned that the public should have greater awareness of proceedings about cases involving adoption, forced marriage, surrogacy, transgender issues and female genital mutilation.

His proposals are the latest recognition of the merits of a campaign by The Times for greater transparency in the family courts that was launched before the 2009 reforms. The judge said the compromise of 12 years ago, in which parties to cases could object to the presence of reporters was “not satisfactory” and that journalists and judges were often unsure of the position.

“The present system does not allow anything other than limited generalised reporting,” said McFarlane, the top family judge in England and Wales since 2018. He added that the “sobriquet ‘secret family court’ is regularly used and I can understand why”.

McFarlane wants the ban on parties in family law proceedings speaking to the media lifted. Family courts would have to provide clearer listings so that reporters and the public could easily identify the type of cases being heard.

His proposals come after the opening of what is likely to be the most expensive divorce in British legal history. Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein of Jordan has brought a financial claim against her husband, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

Journalists are allowed to report on the fact that a hearing regarding divorce finances is taking place, but are barred from relating much of the detail.