Judges’ participation in Serious Case Review should be limited, a senior judge has warned.
Sir James Munby has stated that for important constitutional reasons, judicial participation in SCRs must be limited.
“Therefore, judges do not respond to questions from SCRs, or requests from SCRs to complete Independent Management Reviews, do not attend evidence sessions or other meetings with SCRs and are under no obligation to provide information to SCRs,” said the president of the family courts division has warned.
The guidance from Munby outlines that judges are asked from time to time to participate in various ways in SCRs. On occasions Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards have written to judges following child deaths to request either an interview or the completion of an Independent Management Review - a detailed review of an agency’s involvement with a child and is one of the principal means of capturing information for use in SCRs. Sometimes LSCBs write with a list of specific questions which they invite the judge to answer.
However, it is important for the judiciary to take this stance, not to evade scrutiny or accountability, but to maintain independence, added Munby.
“Judicial independence is a fundamental principle, of key importance to both the constitutional separation of powers and the rule of law,” said Munby. Neither the judiciary nor the senior judiciary nor the relevant Head of Division (in this instance, the President of the Family Division) has any right to intervene in or any responsibility for the decision of a judge in a particular case. The responsibility is, and must be, that of the individual judge, subject of course to review by an appellate court.
If a local authority is dissatisfied with a judgment, then it has the right to appeal.
“It is a fundamental principle that judges do not comment on the decisions of other judges outside the appellate process. This is why it would be inappropriate for an IMR of a judicial decision to be conducted; it would, effectively, be one judge (or group of judges) commenting upon the decisions of another judge outside the proper appellate process,” said Munby.
“It would be even less appropriate for an official (including for this purpose an official in the Judicial Office or in the Judicial Press Office) to seek to comment on a judicial decision. This principle evolved in order to protect the rule of law – it reinforces the idea that the only way to challenge a judicial decision is to do so in court, not to seek to undermine it outside the court process,” added Munby.
The guidance concluded that Munby considers all SCRs that come to his attention carefully and if he takes the view that the findings raise issues for the family judiciary that should be addressed through a President’s Practice Direction or President’s Guidance, then he will issue an appropriate Practice Direction or Guidance.