Top Family Judges in Disagreement over Divorce Privacy

Published: 9th March 2016

High Court Family Judge Mr Justice Moor has warned that a disagreement between senior members of the judiciary over privacy in high value divorce cases "needs to be dealt with" and that clarification from the Court of Appeal over what private information the public has access to is long overdue.

The President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, has encouraged far more transparency in the family courts but disagreements have arisen between judges over what level of personal information the public have access to.

Although members of the public are usually excluded from family court hearings, journalists are able to attend and the level of details they are allowed to report on is at the discretion of the judge. This is where the main problem lies as the level of a couples' privacy will differ from case to case as some judges view what is acceptable in regards to privacy very differently.

For example, Mr Justice Holman has expressed his desire to see more openness in the family courts and has said that he would hear such cases in public wherever possible. In June 2015, he refused to hold a high-profile divorce case between an American businessman and a Russian Actress in private.

Speaking about the case, Mr Justice Holman said, "There is a very long tradition in this country of open justice. We sit in the name of the sovereign but on behalf of the public. How can people have any confidence in the way the system is being operated if they are excluded? The press have to be in here unless it is necessary to exclude them."

"Barristers have got to understand that so far as this judge is concerned and this court is concerned, there is a very, very high public interest... in openness.The public are entitled not just to hear the sanitised judgment that a judge gives, they are entitled to hear the evidence and argument upon which he has based that judgment. They are entitled to see the judge at work."

In a counter argument, Mr Justice Mostyn insisted that disputes such as these were "quintessentially private business". In a case last year, he said that transparency in the family courts shouldn't mean a couples' wealth or personal lives are exposed publicly. "Reporting how a case is conducted, and what legal points are raised, in an abstract way is one thing, laying bare the intimate details of the parties’ private lives is altogether another", he said.

Mr Justice Moor has suggested that the only way for this to be resolved is for the Court of Appeal to examine the issue. He also believes that it is only a matter of time until someone decides to lodge an appeal over having the details of their private lives and personal wealth publicised.

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