England's most senior family court judge is re-examining guidance covering cases in which people face jail for being in contempt, after a woman was imprisoned at a High Court hearing which did not feature on any publicised lists of cases.
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming
said the woman - jailed for 28 days by High Court judge Mrs Justice
Theis at the Royal Courts of Justice in London earlier this month - was a
victim of "secret" justice.
And Mr Hemming, who campaigns for
improvements to the family justice system, said the hearing was staged
in breach of recent guidance warning family court judges not to jail
people behind closed doors.
But officials at the Judicial Office -
set up by ministers to support judges - have defended Mrs Justice
Theis, who sits in the Family Division of the High Court.
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 said practice guidance issued in May about hearings relating to contempt of court had not been breached.
the spokesman said Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of
the High Court and the most senior family judge in England and Wales,
would "consider widening the scope of the cases covered by his latest
And he said Sir James would explore if there was a
way to "alert the media to hearings such as this one which arise at
short notice late in the day".
On May 3, Sir James and Lord Judge -
then the Lord Chief Justice and the most senior judge in England and
Wales, published guidelines headed "Committal for Contempt of Court -
The guidance was issued in the wake of newspaper coverage of a woman who had been jailed for being in contempt of court.
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 stated.
"Committal applications in the... Family Division should at the outset be listed and heard in public."
The woman was jailed by Mrs Justice Theis in a hearing held at 9.30am on October 11.
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
A journalist was alerted to the hearing four days later by a member of the public.
Mr Hemming, who represents Birmingham Yardley, said Mrs Justice Theis had jailed the woman in breach of the guidance.
"She should have listed it with the names of the parties involved," said Mr Hemming.
"It is clearly in breach.
"It drives a coach and horses through the guidance.
"The principle is plain.
should not be jailed without their fellow citizens having the
opportunity to attend so that they can see justice is done."
He added: "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 the Judicial Office disagreed.
The spokesman said the case had been staged at short notice and had not been featured on public court lists.
But he said it had been held in open court.
He gave some detail of the case but did not name the woman or any other party involved.
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
"The woman was represented by a solicitor and a barrister," he said.
woman had refused - and continued to refuse - to reveal the whereabouts
of two children who are the subject of interim care orders.
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
"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
"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."
He added: "The President of the Family Division will consider widening the scope of the cases covered by his latest guidelines.
will also explore if there is a way to alert the media to hearings such
as this one which arise at short notice late in the day."
circular to judges sent in August, Sir James also said judgments must
also be made publicly available on the British and Irish Legal
Information Institute website following contempt hearings.
principle is very clear and must be rigorously followed, no one is ever
to be committed for contempt of court by a family court... without the
name of the contemnor, proper details of the contempts and the reasons
for the committal being made publicly available in a judgment published
on the British and Irish Legal Information Institute website."
added: "We shall be subject to strong and entirely justifiable criticism
if it emerges that anyone has been committed since 3 May 2013 without
the name of the contemnor, proper details of the contempt(s) and the
reasons for the committal appearing on the British and Irish Legal
Information Institute website... I very much hope that there are no such
Mr Hemming said no judgment from the Theis case had appeared on the website.
Sir James said about judgments seemed very clear," he added. "No
judgment from this case has appeared on the British and Irish Legal
Information Institute website. We don't even know this woman's name. I
strongly criticise Mrs Justice Theis."
courtesy off http://news.uk.msn.com/mp-condemns-secret-justice