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Posts Tagged ‘openness’

Lord Justice Munby recently delivered the annual Hershman Levy Lecture on the topic of Transparency and the Children Schools and Families Act 2010, in which he referred to my recent article in Family Law, republished here. You can read the lecture here on the Association of Lawyers for Children website.

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Fudge - Stephanie189

Children Schools & Fudge Act 2010?

Further to my previous post on the passing of the Children Schools & Families Act 2010, The Times has published an article about the new provisions which is spot on: it identifies – importantly – that the new law, when it is brought into force, will in fact be more restrictive than the existing privacy rules covering children proceedings. In particular, not only will anonymity rules apply to the children themselves, but they will also apply to anyone involved in the proceedings, apart from professional witnesses.

So much for open justice. The Times says ‘a Fudge’, I’m inclined to agree.

PS Does anybody know when this is likely to be brought into force?

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The FLBA hosted a panel discussion on ‘Publicity in Family Proceedings’ today. It was moderated by Mr Justice Coleridge, and the panel was comprised of Mrs Justice Eleanor King, Anthony Hayden QC, Joshua Rozenberg and Dr Julia Brophy. It was a really interesting discussion. There was some consensus on a number of points: that greater openness was desirable, that the first round of reforms introducing media access had been a bit of a damp squib and that the proposed reforms contained in the Children, Schools & Families Bill 2009 were an impenetrable mess.

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But it’s an enormous and complex topic to cover in an hour, and there was an aspect of this debate that I wish had been explored more thoroughly. Much of the discussion was based on the supposed dichotomy between journalists (reputable) and bloggers (boo, hiss) and the assumption that all things bad are represented by the internet bogeyman. The Bill it seems, will remove (inadvertently perhaps?) the power of the court to permit access to persons other than ‘accredited media representatives’, which theoretically at least can presently be used to permit access to the responsible blogger without the benefit of a press card. It is of course imperative that whatever the rules permit to be heard, disclosed or published, safeguards should be in place to promote responsible reporting and minimise unbalanced coverage. But, in much the same way that many held misplaced expectations that the press would be a conduit for educating the public at large about the day to day work of the family justice system (is it really a surprise that they don’t report a range of cases across the board but select only those with the power to sell papers?), there seems to be a misplaced perception that we can or should draw some bright line between the ‘journalists’ and ‘the bloggers’.

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First: Journalists and bloggers alike publish, via their different media, information for their own purposes. They none of them serve the interests of the family justice system in educating or informing the public: although their interests may coincide from time to time they are not coterminous.

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Today’s press release from the MoJ in respect of proposed legislative reform to further open up the Family Courts. Hmmm….More on this when I’ve had time to look properly…

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Justice Secretary Jack Straw has announced the second tranche of reforms in respect of the opening up of the family courts, reports the Times. It is no surprise that the government has announced its plan to relax the law in respect of reporting restrictions after the widespread disappointment voiced by the media when it realised that the April reforms were not quite what had been anticipated. What is a surprise is the plan to bring changes into force by this Autumn. This seems a remarkably optimistic timetable for reform of primary legislation and presumably does not envisage further consultation. There is absolutely no consensus on how this should be handled and I wonder if it will really be possible to do this job properly by the autumn? It is essential that it is done properly rather than rushed through, and the announcement gives real cause for concern.

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It should go without saying that in the course of the announcement Mr Straw took the opportunity to lob a gratuitous shot at lawyers about legal aid, wheeling out the same old misleading figures. And now it seems he is also having a go at the notion that multiple parties should be afforded representation in children cases. Why not go the whole hog and just scrap the judicial scrutiny of the removal of children from their parents and make it an adminstrative process? Or better still why not let the media report the cases freely, each paper taking on the case for a different party and decide the case on the basis of newspaper sales? Much cheaper and much more transparent – both key goals achieved!

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Am I sounding a bit sarky this morning? It’s been a long week…

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This case concerning the Spencer Divorce is the second case I have seen reported where counsel have tried to argue for privacy within ancillary relief proceedings – and failed. The characteristic of both cases is that the argument was focussed on ousting the media from the hearing in the first place, rather than on restricting what portion of what had been observed could be reported. In both cases they were sent out with a rather public flea in their ear. In the Spencer case the battle now shifts onto the reporting restrictions.

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What I suppose was not lost on the parties in that case (who both supported a media ban) was that although there may be nothing terribly exciting or newsworthy about the divorce itself the rules permitting media access would give free reign for the prurient eye of the media to roam through the embarrassing details and little extravagances of expenditure that might be the kernel of a story in a desperate hour. Of course the media would not have access to the documents themselves (at least not without prior successful application to the court) but cross examination in ancillary relief cases may well have highlighted this and that – enough to get their teeth into.

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No doubt the media will be more interested in reporting the costs of caribbean cruises or private jets that make up the expenditure of the rich and famous than of the detail of Mrs Blogg’s monthly tesco bill, but I don’t really see that wealth or celebrity ought to raise an entitlement to privacy that is not afforded to the rest of us. Whether silken lingerie or tesco kecks none of us much wants to wash our dirty laundry in public, but rules is rules and the clear policy behind them was to open up the hearings to the media. In the course of time once the new regime has bedded down we will perhaps see a proper refocussing of energies (and costs) into applying for reporting restrictions, where appropriate, rather than attempts to ban the media from attending in the first place which appear not to be finding much favour with the courts.

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Thinking about telling the world about the injustice you have suffered at the hands of the family court system? Understandably many parents who have been through family court proceedings want to blog or write about their experience of trying to get contact with their son or daughter, or about how the state wrongly took their children from them. Many want to get advice from other parents who have been through similar experiences through online support forums or web communities.

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Before you go describing the details of your case online make sure that what you are about to post is within the law. There may be lots in the press about the opening up of the family justice system, but it is actually very easy to fall foul of the law about publishing information about court cases concerning children – the law applies not just to reporters but also to you as a parent. If you do publish information about the case, whether in blog form or otherwise, you won’t be the first person to do so. But be warned, like those who have gone before you, even if you are careful not to name names you are likely to be committing a contempt of court and possibly a criminal offence.

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I have come across detailed journals about the journey of children and their parents through the court system, and I often get comments that I moderate off my blog because if published they would offend against the law. It’s a worry that people think they can publish what they like as long as it’s anonymous, and this post is intented to raise a few flags to those people, so they can be better informed about what the law says about their actions**. Hence the blogger’s guide to writing about family proceedings:

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So, here are Ten Things You Should Know:

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1 Apart from allowing the media access to court hearings on 27 April 2009, pretty much nothing else has changed. Reporting restrictions where children are concerned still apply.

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2 Reporting restrictions apply to individuals, including parents, as well as just reporters and thet are more complex than just saying ‘the child, who can’t be named for legal reasons’ etc.

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3 It is a criminal offence to publish information intended to or likely to identify a child as involved in Children Act proceedings (s97(2) Children Act 1989).

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4 It is a contempt of court to publish information relating to proceedings wholly or mainly concerning the upbringing of any child (s12 Administration of Justice Act 1960). You can be punished for contempt of court by imprisonment. Any communication of information to someone else, whether orally or in writing is a ‘publication’. ‘Information relating to proceedings’ means details of what has gone on in court, including what the judge, witnesses or experts have said or written in court documents. It is ok to give the gist of the issue in the case e.g. that the case concerned decisions about where the child should live or how often they should see their parents. It is not ok to give details of allegations made by the parties, for example about violence or the standard of parenting given by one parent.

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5 It is ok to publish information identifying a child as having previously been involved in Children Act proceedings once the case has finished (Clayton v Clayton 2006) e.g. My daughter Sarah Smith was the subject of an application by me for residence (Be warned though, Jack Straw has said he will abolish this exception although it seems unlikely that he will find time to amend the law any time soon).

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6 However, it is still a contempt of court to publish information about what has gone on in the court case even after the court case is finished – s12 Administration of Justice Act 1960 applies indefinitely.

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7 The court has a wide power to make specific orders to relax or restrict the application of the law set out above. If you want to publish something that the law prevents you from publishing you will need to apply to the judge dealing with the case. If you are publishing material that comes to the attention of others involved in the case you may find yourself on the wrong end of an application for an injunction, and possibly with costs implications.

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8 If the press approach you to speak to them, do not rely on the media to know what is and is not lawful. Even respectable national papers regularly publish material that is in breach of the law.

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9 You are not entitled to disclose court documents to the press or to publish them online. You can disclose them to somebody confidentially if you need to do that in order to obtain advice support or assistance in the conduct of your case, but you must make sure that anyone you disclose documents to in this way knows that the material is confidential and must not be passed any further. You should look at rule 11.1 – 11.9 FPR 1991 to see what can be disclosed and when. Giving details of your case to other parents for help on an online support forum is probably not within the rules even if the forum is members only, but on the other hand the Court of Appeal have taken a relatively sympathetic approach to this type of activity in the past, when it was clear that a useful purpose was being served by the forum (see Re G [2003] EWCA Civ 489). Using a forum to run down the other parent is likely to meet with a less sympathetic approach.

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10 Consider what impact any publication will have on the child, and consider what impact it may have on the court’s view of you if it is drawn to their attention. It may prove very unhelpful if the Judge thinks you are on a crusade for justice that has distracted you from the practical needs of your child. Consider also how publishing material will HELP you secure justice or what unwanted attention it might attract.

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So those are my ten points – it is often superficially attractive to get all your disgruntlements off your chest, and to gripe about how unfair the system is. And it is all too easy to forget who may be reading what you have posted in a careless moment. At least if you do decide to publish and be damned you can do it from a position of first having a rough understanding what the law says about it.

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Postscript: Number 11 on the list is that points 1 – 10 are a very very broad brush and quite superficial summary of what is actually quite  a subtle area of law. This is the Nutshells version only.

** NB: This post is a summary of the law concerning disclosure and publication of information in relation to family proceedings concerning children. As with everything on this blog it should not be treated as legal advice and I would suggest that anyone in doubt should 1) seek legal advice about the specifics of your case and 2) hold off on publication until that doubt is resolved.

POST SCRIPT NO 2: Don’t forget the law is due to change, on a date to be announced…See here.

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