England’s most senior family court judge has taken a major step towards opening up the family courts by ruling that the identity of children involved in most family proceedings can be made public after cases have ended.
Sir Mark Potter, president of the family division, ruled in the Court of Appeal this week that a father who abducted his daughter and took her to Portugal could identify her and talk to the media about the case.
It comes as the Department for Constitutional Affairs prepares to publish a consultation on plans to make the family courts more open.
Potter argued that the ruling struck the balance between Simon Clayton’s right to freedom of expression and his seven-year-old daughter Estelle’s right to privacy.
He said the effect of his decision was that details of family cases could be published in full – with names – after proceedings had finished.
But he warned: “The court, after the conclusion of the proceedings, retains its welfare jurisdiction and will be able to intervene where a child’s welfare is put at risk by inappropriate parental identification for publicity purposes.”
Lord Justice Wall, the second of three judges who heard the case, said it was “unacceptable” that judges should be routinely accused of “administering ‘secret’ justice” and that the court’s decision would be a “further small step towards transparency”.
In a speech last week, constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman repeated pledges to open up family courts, saying it would increase public confidence.
Alison Paddle, chair of court guardians’ association Nagalro, said the government faced a difficult balancing act in proposing to make family courts more transparent.
“The public has to have confidence in decisions made in court,” she said, “but it can create a lot of problems for children if all the details of difficulties in their family situations are going to be in the press, especially in small communities.”
She also said the enormous pressure of publicity could deter people who gave their professional opinions in the family courts from taking on work.