Judge spells out court changes

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Published: Friday 14th November 2014 by The News Editor

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The public must have better notification of last-minute hearings at which people could be sent to jail , the most senior family court judge in England and Wales has said .

Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, has spelled out changes in the way cases which come before family court judges at short notice are listed.

He has outlined a number of alterations after an MP criticised a High Court judge who jailed a mother of 10 at a hearing which had not featured on any published lists of cases.

Liberal Democrat John Hemming had said the hearing – presided over by Mrs Justice Theis in the Family Division of the High Court in London in October 2013 – was an example of ”secret” justice and in breach of guidance warning judges not to jail people behind closed doors.

Sir James said today that electronic court lists should be updated as soon as a court became “aware that the matter is coming before it”. He said that could “be done very quickly”.

He said detail of the hearing should also be posted outside the courtroom and in a central location of whatever building the hearing was taking place in.

And he said journalists should be notified of short-notice hearings – via an email sent to the UK’s national news agency, the Press Association – by officials.

In May 2013, Sir James and Lord Judge – then the Lord Chief Justice and the most senior judge in England and Wales, published guidelines about hearings at which people faced being jailed for breaching court orders.

The guidance, headed ”Committal for Contempt of Court – Practice Guidance”, was issued in the wake of newspaper coverage of the case of a woman who had been jailed for being in contempt of court.

”It is a fundamental principle of the administration of justice in England and Wales that applications for committal for contempt should be heard and decided in public, that is, open court,” the guidance said.

And Sir James today re-iterated that guidance when outlining improvement to case listings.

He outlined changes in a ruling after Mr Hemming took legal action in the wake of the hearing before Mrs Justice Theis.

Mr Hemming had argued that the jailed woman not been identified she had been “held effectively incommunicado”.

The MP wanted an order that the woman should be identified to “allow consideration of the lawfulness of her imprisonment”.

A High Court judge had dismissed the claim – saying the woman’s interest were protected because she had been represented by lawyers.

Mr Hemming then asked the Court of Appeal to consider the case.

A panel of three judges – the most senior of which was Sir James – analysed his claim.

The panel dismissed his appeal against the High Court decision.

But Sir James outlined listings improvements in a written appeal court ruling on Mr Hemming’s case.

The woman was jailed by Mrs Justice Theis in a hearing held at 9.30am on October 11 2013.

There was no reference to the case on any public court lists – not by name or case number – and Mrs Justice Theis was not listed as sitting at all on that day.

A journalist was alerted to the hearing several days later by a member of the public.

Mr Hemming, who represents Birmingham Yardley, had criticised Mrs Justice Theis at the time, saying: ”She should have listed it with the names of the parties involved.”

He had added: ”The principle is plain. People should not be jailed without their fellow citizens having the opportunity to attend so that they can see justice is done…

“How can it be a public hearing if it isn’t listed? How can anyone – journalists or members of the public – know that it’s taking place if it isn’t listed? No-one would know about it now if a reporter hadn’t found out and asked questions. It was secret justice. If this had happened to a British citizen in a foreign country, people would be up in arms.”

But officials at the Judicial Office – set up by ministers to support judges – had defended Mrs Justice Theis.

A Judicial Office spokesman said the hearing had arisen at ”short notice” and had not featured on lists posted in the Royal Courts of Justice and on the internet.

Nevertheless, he said it had been held in open court.

And he added: ”Mrs Justice Theis did jail a woman for contempt of court for 28 days at a hearing in open court at the Royal Courts of Justice at 9.30am on October 11.

”The woman was represented by a solicitor and a barrister … The woman had refused – and continued to refuse – to reveal the whereabouts of two children who are the subject of interim care orders.

”Recently published practice guidelines cover applications to commit to prison for contempt of court by one party against the other.

”This was a different type of case at short notice, where the judge made the decision to list the matter on October 11 at the end of a hearing the day before.

”The woman was given until the following day to give the information and, when she declined, she was found to be in contempt of court and, after hearing mitigation from her barrister, she was jailed.

”Mrs Justice Theis had not been due to sit on October 11.

”The case the previous day ended too late for it to be added to the public listings at the Royal Courts of Justice.”

Detail of the case had then emerged about three weeks later in a written ruling by Mrs Justice Theis published on a legal website.

The ruling revealed that that the woman was a mother of 10 who had been jailed less than a month after watching her sick teenage daughter ”kicked repeatedly and punched”.

Mrs Justice Theis said the youngster disappeared after social workers intervened in the wake of the alleged attack.

And the teenager’s mother was imprisoned after failing to reveal her whereabouts in breach of a High Court order.

Mrs Justice Theis had concluded that the woman was in contempt of court and imposed a 28-day prison term.

The judge said one of the girl’s two alleged attackers had been bailed. She did not say what happened to the other.

Mrs Justice Theis named the woman she jailed as Margaret Connors in her written ruling. She did not give an age or address but said social workers involved worked for the London Borough of Ealing.

In her ruling, Mrs Justice Theis said social workers had been involved with the family for about a year.

The judge said the girl was being treated for rheumatic fever, which required monthly penicillin injections, and described her ”medical position” as ”extremely worrying”.

She said the girl had allegedly been attacked at the family home by her 16-year-old brother and her father – in the presence of Mrs Connors – after being criticised over her behaviour.

Mrs Justice Theis said the girl, who is in her early teens, was discharged from hospital the day after the attack and vanished a few days later after a meeting with social workers.

The judge said another of Mrs Connors’ daughters, who is a similar age, also went missing.

Staff at Ealing Council were granted care orders and Mrs Connors was ordered either to produce the two girls or help High Court officials find them.

Mrs Justice Theis said Mrs Connors breached that order.

Mrs Connors said she would not tell social workers where the girls were because she ”did not agree to them being in care”.

She said she might be ”ostracised” by her local community if she worked together with the council. She said she was sorry and ”now wishes to co-operate”.

But the judge said the case was ”extremely serious” and a jail term had to be imposed.

Following the publication of the written ruling, Mr Hemming had said: “‘Although it does not appear that family life is perfect, it is unclear that the intervention of the state has made anything better. Locking mum up for four weeks has cost a lot more and I am not sure anyone has benefited.”

Published: Friday 14th November 2014 by The News Editor

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