09:24, August 03 63 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-03 09:24:03
Sir James Munby: family courts chief not afraid to challenge government

Sir James Munby, the president of the high court’s family division, is one of the most outspoken judges of his generation.

Although he declines to give personal interviews, he distills into his judgments more direct challenges to the government and care authorities than any other member of the bench.

Munby has repeatedly highlighted failures and shortcomings in the justice and care system, with his comments revealed on Thursday – that the nation will have “blood on its hands” if an NHS hospital bed cannot be found within days for a teenage girl believed to be at acute risk of taking her own life – the latest example.

Three years ago he directly challenged the government over legal aid, suggesting courts should spend money to provide representation in defiance of Ministry of Justice cuts.

Earlier this year he drew attention to the plight of women in the family courts who are subjected to direct questioning by men who had previously abused them violently, and called on the government to ban the practice.

Part of his professional frustration is a response to deep cuts in legal aid for social welfare, custody and divorce cases, which has resulted in the family courts being inundated with unrepresented claimants.

In June, Munby also drew attention to the “inhumanity” of splitting up elderly couples when one or both are moved to a care home. Gifted with the ability to select a phrase that will resonate in the media, he declared: “We do know that people die of a broken heart.”

Now aged 69, he has indicated he will step down in summer 2018 when he reaches the compulsory judicial retirement age of 70.

Munby is determined to rebut accusations that the family division operates a form of secret justice, and is in the process of introducing greater transparency. He has said: “We need both more people going into the family courts and more information coming out.”

In keeping with that principle, he ruled in 2009 that Earl Spencer’s divorce from his second wife, Caroline, could not be heard in private.