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Posts Tagged ‘secrecy’

The Children Schools and Families Act 2010 made its way through ‘wash up’ and received Royal Assent on 8 April 2010.

Amongst other things (not dealt with here) it makes substantial and controversial changes to the law concerning the publication of material relating to family proceedings, which are summarised below. There will be repeals and amendments of a number of pieces of primary legislation, in particular s12 Administration of Justice Act 1960, s97 Children Act 1989 and s39 Children and Young Persons act 1933.

The relevant provisions are contained in Part II of the Act, and they apply to all relevant family proceedings at which the public are / were not entitled to be present. Broadly: divorce, civil partnership and financial matters are not ‘relevant family proceedings’. References to ‘the Act’ in this article refer to Part II and its associated schedules. At the time of writing the Act is not yet in force and no date for its implementation has been announced.

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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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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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Looking back I appear not to have posted about Jack Straw’s December announcement about the opening of the family courts, although I have since posted on the topic here and here. Although I’m sure I prepared a post on this announcement I suspect it went the way of several boxes of important ‘stuff’ during my house move around the same time…not yet found.

Anyway, Mr Justice McFarlane last weekend gave a most interesting address dealing with, amongst other things ( including rather bizarrely donkeys (I guess you had to be there), those reforms in detail – highlighting meticulously how modest the proposed changes in fact are. It is worth a read.

The reforms are of course due to come into force in April, although nothing further is in the public domain since the initial announcement so it is unclear in practice what will change as of that date.

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POSTSCRIPT: More information here (nice title Jacqui) – apparently new rules in force 27 APRIL. Nice of someone to have told us…Perhaps we could see some draft rules before then?

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Camilla Cavendish writes about the ‘sting in the tail’ of Jack Straw’s proposals to open up the family courts to media scrutiny.

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Still no word I think about when the legislative change required to bring this new arrangement into place by 1 April is going to be published or how ‘accredited media’ will be defined. Seems unlikely it will happen on deadline. Does anyone know anything I don’t?

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