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29 February 2016

Big money divorce case secrecy row could trigger appeals, warns judge

Couples involved in multi-million pound divorce settlements who have seen details of their private lives and wealth widely publicised as part of a drive to open the courts might have grounds for a legal challenge, The Telegraph reports a senior judge has suggested.

Mr Justice Moor said a referral to the Court of Appeal to clarify how much the public can be told about often acrimonious family break-ups is “overdue”.

It comes amid open disagreement between senior members of the judiciary about the approach to be taken.

The President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, has called for “much more” transparency in the family justice system but there is effective disagreement between judges on how that should apply.

Family court hearings are usually staged in private, with members of the public barred.

Although journalists can attend, there are restrictions on what details can be reported, which remains a matter for the judge.

Mr Justice Holman, who analyses settlements at the High Court in London, has spoken of a “pressing need” for more openness in the legal system and made clear that he would hear such cases in public where possible.

Last year he turned down a request for a hearing to divide the assets of Richard Fields, an American businessman, and his wife Ekaterina Parfenova, a Russian actress and former beauty queen, to be held in private.

“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,” he insisted.

Instead, he repeatedly urged the couple to reach a settlement rather than having intimate details of their lives fought over in court in an atmosphere he warned would be “like a boxing match”.

But a fellow High Court Family Division judge, Mr Justice Mostyn, has insisted that such disputes were “quintessentially private business”.

In one case last year he remarked that openness should not require publicly exposing details of couples’ lives together.

He said: “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.”

Speaking in a private hearing in a dispute over assets in the Family Division of the High Court in London on Friday, Mr Justice Moor suggested the Court of Appeal should now examine the issue.
“Presumably, sooner or later, somebody is going to appeal,” he told lawyers. “It is overdue.”

In remarks which he agreed could be published, he added: “It just seems to me that this difference of opinion between the other judges and Mr Justice Holman needs to be dealt with.”

During the Fields case last year, Mr Justice Holman explained his decision to refuse a request to sit behind closed doors.

He 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.”

He added: “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.”