Munby advises judges to limit involvement in serious case reviews

By Neil Puffett

| 04 May 2017

Judges should avoid taking part in official probes into child deaths in order to maintain the independence of the judiciary, England's most senior family court judge has said.

SCRs are conducted in cases where children who have been in contact with local authority children's services have died or suffered serious harm. Picture: Phil Adams

Guidance issued by Sir James Munby states that there is currently "widespread misunderstanding" about the extent to which judges and magistrates should participate in serious case reviews (SCRs).

SCRs are conducted by local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) in cases where children who have been in contact with local authority children's services have died or suffered serious harm.

Munby said that some LSCBs have written to judges after child deaths to request either an interview or the completion of an independent management review (IMR), or provide a list of specific questions for the judge to answer.

"Judges should provide every assistance to SCRs which is compatible with judicial independence," the guidance states.

"It is, however, necessary to be aware that key constitutional principles of judicial independence, the separation of powers and the rule of law can be raised by SCRs.

"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 IMRs, do not attend evidence sessions or other meetings with SCRs and are under no obligation to provide information to SCRs.

"The judiciary takes this stance, not because it wishes to evade scrutiny or accountability, but in order to protect its independence and the independence of individual judges."

The guidance states that, in principle, it is appropriate for an SCR to have access to all material that the judge had access to in hearing the case, including all expert reports, transcripts of the proceedings, all court orders and transcripts of all judgments.

"Therefore, the proper response to any request for information from a LSCB or SCR is to make available copies of all such documents, though not copies of the judge's notes," the guidance adds.

Last year a serious case review criticised a senior family court judge for taking "unwarranted" extra steps in reuniting a man with a violent and criminal past with his young daughter 11 months before he beat her to death.

Last year it was announced that the current system of serious case reviews (SCRs) will be scrapped and replaced with a new way of investigating child deaths.

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