Ex-MP says 'open justice' rules 'must be followed to the letter'

A former Liberal Democrat MP has raised concern after a family court judge ruled that a Polish woman who might be given a prison sentence could not be identified in media reports of her case.

Judge Simon Oliver - who imposed the identity ban at a public hearing in a family court in Reading, Berkshire, on Friday - said he wanted to protect the woman's teenage daughter and ensure that the youngster's name did not emerge in an information jigsaw.

But John Hemming, who campaigns for improvements in the family justice system, said Judge Oliver had fallen foul of rules aimed at ensuring that people were not jailed in secret.

Social services bosses at Oxfordshire County Council had accused the woman of being in contempt of court by breaching a judge's order - and had asked for her to be committed to prison.

The woman had been afraid that she would spend Christmas in jail.

But Judge Oliver adjourned the committal application - with the approval of council lawyers.

Nevertheless he warned her she might be given a jail sentence in the New Year if she breached orders.

The woman said her daughter had been taken into foster care following investigations by social workers.

She had been ordered not to identify the youngster when publicising the case.

Council bosses had launched committal proceedings after she was interviewed by a Polish television reporter in Polish.

She said her interview had been broadcast in Poland and on the internet.

Judicial heads have twice in recent years laid down rules relating to procedures judges must follow when considering applications to commit people to jail for contempt.

In March 2015 Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice - and the most senior judge in England and Wales, said "open justice" was a "fundamental principle".

He said the general rule was that committal hearings were staged in public, orders were made in public and judgments were given in public.

Lord Thomas said a case listing should begin with the words: "for hearing in open court"; should contain the "full name" of the person or body applying for someone to be committed to prison; and should contain the "full name" of the person alleged to be in contempt.

He said if a judge was considering imposing any "derogation from the principle of open justice" media organisations had to be warned - so editors had a chance to raise objections.

"This rule applies to all hearings, whether on application or otherwise, for committal for contempt, " said Lord Thomas in a "practice direction" to judges.

"Derogations from the general principle can only be justified in exceptional circumstances, when they are strictly necessary as measures to secure the proper administration of justice."

Mr Hemming said Judge Oliver had not complied with Lord Thomas's practice direction.

He said the case had not been properly listed because the listing had not started with the words "for hearing in open court" and had not contained Oxfordshire County Council's name or the woman's full name.

Mr Hemming said the decision to bar journalists from naming the woman was a "derogation from the principle of open justice" - but media organisations had not been warned of the proposal.

"The rules are there to make sure that people are never jailed in secret," he said.

"It is very important that they are followed to the letter.

"It is clear that the rules have not be complied with in a number of ways in this case.

"I think it would be a good idea if judges hearing committal applications were required to read the rules before they heard a case.

"Lawyers representing people bringing committal applications should also bring the rules to the judge's attention."

Two years ago a judge based in the Family Division of the High Court in London decided to lift a similar ban - which prevented journalists from identifying a single mother given a jail term - after Mr Hemming complained. Mrs Justice Roberts concluded that a reporting restrictions order she had imposed had been ''too wide'' after revisiting rules.