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Spotlight on family justice27th March 2018 Family Law
It's really difficult to get the balance right between ensuring transparency in the family court system and protecting the privacy of children and other vulnerable people. The President of the Family Division, England's most senior family judge, has indicated in recent remarks (and in other comments both in and out of court) that we have not got the balance right and there needs to be greater openness.
Speaking at a recent event, Sir James Munby, who will be retiring later this year, said that judges should not be 'immune from criticism' and that journalists could perhaps have greater access to documents and evidence to help them understand and, where necessary, shine a light on the decision-making process.
He also spoke of 'tired' and 'grotesquely overworked' judges. There is a real need for reform, true, but how to deliver that in a system that already feels like it is at breaking point? In my experience, there is no sign that the huge pressures on the family court are letting up.
As individual lawyers, there is only so much we can do to promote transparency within the family justice system. However, Sir James' remarks got me thinking about what we can do working within the confines of the law and procedure as it stands to help move towards the goal of promoting public trust in and understanding of the family court, and family law more generally.
I think it has to start with self-examination. When we are interacting with clients, are we explaining things in a way that helps them truly understand the legal issues in their case so that they can make reasoned, informed decisions without overburdening people with unnecessary detail? When we are interacting with the general public friends, family members, contacts from other professional areas do we participate in open discussions about legal questions that arise or is there a tendency to close ranks and stand up for 'the profession' out of a sense of loyalty? Without wanting to be too self-referential, when we are producing blogs, tweeting, taking part in discussions online or offline are we doing so in a way that is likely to increase public awareness of how the law and justice system works?
I also think that we need to keep abreast of the wider public discussion around family law issues, including non-traditional sources of information and (unfortunately, on occasions) misinformation. What are people saying about us as a profession and about family law generally? Can we do anything to dispel myths or improve understanding?
Family law is an area that everyone has a stake in, one way or another. As family lawyers, we have a real weight of responsibility to do right by our clients and wider society in what we say and do.