The Court of Protection, which deals with issues concerning vulnerable people who are deemed unable to make their own decisions, should be opened up to greater public scrutiny, according to its head.
Sir Nicholas Wall, President of the Family Division of the High Court, called for a debate on the level of access the media have to hearings held by the court, followed by new legislation.
“It seems to me a matter of public interest,” said Sir Nicholas. “The public is, after all, entitled to know what’s going on. Locking up a mentally disabled person is a very serious thing to do and we don’t want people quietly locked up in private.”
The court, which sits at the Royal Courts of Justice, is tasked with making decisions “in the best interests of those who lack capacity to do so”.
It deals with matters relating to an individual’s personal welfare, liberty and health.
The court also deals with issues concerning the person’s property, financial affairs and has the power to appoint a “deputy” to act on his or her behalf.
Until last year the hearings were automatically conducted in private.
But following a successful legal challenge, judges now decide whether the media can observe hearings on a case-by-case basis.
Despite this, access is only granted on rare occasions and judges still have the power to restrict reporting.
Sir Nicholas said the secrecy of the court had led to it becoming tarnished with a misleading image.
It was was important for the public to understand the “tremendous responsibility” the court had, he said in an itnerview with The Guardian.
He was “increasingly encouraging judges who deal with life and death cases and those that involve the public interest – that is, deprivation of liberty safeguards, or life support machine cases – either to sit in open court or to publish their judgments anonymously.
“The public deserve to know about how they are decided,” he added
Sir Nicholas continued: “The decision about opening up the court is very fraught and people have very strong views.
“My entirely personal view is that provided we can protect the confidentiality of litigants and their families, there’s not a reason we can’t hear the cases in the presence of the media.”