This is a County Court case, dealing with some of the transparency issues that I’ve been writing about recently, and highlights that there are going to be teething problems as the Courts move from very secret to fairly open.
[If we were moving to 100% open where there were no restrictions at all, the lack of clarity about what is ‘direct identification’, what is ‘indirect identification’ and what is neither, wouldn’t be such an issue, but at the moment, given that what the Courts are prohibiting is direct or indirect identification of the child and linking that to identification that that particular child had been the subject of Court proceedings, not being clear about what is meant by those terms is no longer helpful.]
Re B (A Child) 2014
The case involved an application by the Local Authority (Staffordshire) for a Reporting Restriction Order – given that Staffordshire were the LA who lost so badly on this issue when they came before the President in Re J they must have been fairly nervous about making the application.
The child is 2 years old and on 23rd May 2013 the Family Proceedings Court made her the subject of care and placement orders. There had been extensive assessments of the problems faced by these parents. The mother and the father came to the courageous and wise decision that they would not oppose the local authority’s plan for their child to be placed for adoption. The maternal grandmother had a different view and she made an application to the court for an order that she should care for the child. The grandmother was also the subject of extensive assessment which concluded that the child should not be placed with her.
What happened after that final hearing was that the grandmother did not accept the outcome in the way that the parents had. She was against it, and not afraid to say so.
She appealed to the County Court, and lost, and appealed to the Court of Appeal and lost.
The grandmother is clearly very disappointed by this outcome and she has
complained that the outcome is unfair. No one suggests that the grandmother
should be prevented from commenting on this saga or from criticising the local
authority or the court. However, the local authority says that the grandmother
has gone beyond that. They say that she has caused harm to the child by using
her name and her photograph. Examples have been shown to me. I have seen
the grandmother’s Facebook postings in the bundle at C13, C15 and C17. There
is a further very relevant Facebook posting at the back of the local authority’s
written submissions, an entry which I am told is dated 13th December 2013 and
starts by an indication that it was posted 11 hours ago. In addition the
grandmother has started an online petition bearing the name and photograph of
the child. Details are in the bundle at C17. The grandmother has contributed to
an internet radio station where there was a discussion forum to which the
grandmother contributed the name of the child. This is accessible from a link
which appears on page C19 of the bundle.
6. The local authority’s application for a reporting restriction order seeks
to prevent this identification of the child but otherwise does not seek to prevent
discussion, comment and criticism of the local authority and court processes.
So it is only anything that would directly or indirectly identify the child which would be prohibited.
That of course was easy in an age where the only people who could publish anything were newspapers – they would just be told “you can print the story but not the name” and would decide whether sans the name the story would have sufficient public interest to make it worth publishing. And the sanction for breaking that restriction would be fairly simple – it is easy to dish out a fine to a newspaper, who can pay the fine.
But we now live in a different age, one where anyone who wants to publish anything can do so. For example, this very blog that you are reading. Anybody who wants to can set up a blog and write about what they like. Or they can use their Facebook page, or Twitter, or join an internet chatroom or post comments on Mumsnet or other similar sites.
The considerations are different for a journalist or editor whose natural tendency is to comply with the Court’s wishes or orders, and that of an aggrieved person who is personally and fundamentally affected by the decision and has lost all faith in the Court.
The most natural place for most people these days, to express their views is on their Facebook page. The grandmother, of course, doesn’t have to give the surname of the child to have indirectly identified them if she writes about them on her Facebook page, because the Facebook page directly identifies HER, and her comments directly link the children to HER.
The evidence presented to me leaves me in no doubt that the grandmother has embarked upon a campaign to undermine these rights enjoyed by the child. The Facebook entry of 13th December 2013 attached to the written submissions can only be described as a call for others to help a search for the depicted child in her new adoptive placement. The accompanying text and other text refer to the child as a stolen child but by that date the Court of Appeal had determined that the plan for adoption could not be challenged. This kind of publication is very harmful at a number of levels. It is harmful to the child in the present if the search established her whereabouts and led to disturbance and destabilisation. It is harmful in the present even if the search does not succeed in that it exposes the prospective adopters to anxiety at a time when the child’s best interests would be served by them accepting her into their household from a standpoint of emotional stability. It is very harmful to the child in the future in that these internet postings can remain so that when a little older and accessing the internet herself the child may encounter these destabilising messages and find her own wellbeing undermined. Alternatively these postings might be accessed by friends of the child and form the basis of comment or even bullying.
11. I remind myself that the courts of the land at the highest level have determined that placement for adoption is the only appropriate outcome for this child and an outcome which is inherently lawful. In these circumstances it is clear that Article 8 and Article 10 are in conflict. Both represent important rights. However, as so often in these cases, a proportionate balanced reconciliation emerges. The right to freedom of expression does not need the elements of personal identification which are so harmful. The right to respect for family and private life does need a prohibition to be placed upon identification but does not need to prevent all comment and debate. It is clear to me that the proportionate outcome is to allow discussion but to prevent identification
The Court balanced the article 8 right to private and family life for the child against the article 10 right to freedom of expression, and determined that it was right that the grandmother should be able to debate and discuss the case, including the facts of the case (and including within that scope her own view of the case, which might be at variance to the Court’s own conclusions) BUT that she should not be allowed to identify, directly or indirectly, the child.
There is one area in which I find the present case to differ from the President’s case of Re: J  EWHC 2694 (Fam). In that case the restraint of publication of photographs of a tiny baby was considered to be inappropriate. The present case I find to be very different. This child is significantly older and correspondingly easier to identify from photographs. Indeed, the grandmother has used a photograph as part of her campaign to seek out the whereabouts of the prospective adoptive placement. This is one of the most harmful aspects of the case and an element from which the child needs protection. Carrying out the same balancing exercise as did the President I reach a different conclusion and find that the publication of photographs must be restrained alongside the publication of names.
I shall conclude with a note addressed to the grandmother. I am sorry that she has chosen not to attend court today. There may be points which she could raise which are relevant to my decision. I have done my best in her absence to anticipate them. However if there are other points I invite her to apply to the court. The worst thing she could do would be to act in breach of this order and only when steps are taken to enforce the order against her, to raise points which should have been raised today. The order does not prevent campaigning, discussion or debate. However as in many other cases, these must not include the use of the true names or photographs of the child as this would be harmful to her.
The judgment does leave me in some doubt, and sadly the precise terms of the Reporting Restriction Order are not set out to aid in interpretation, as to whether the grandmother can continue to post commentary or discussion about the case on her own Facebook page subject to NOT naming the child or including photographs, or whether doing that commentary or discussion under her own name indirectly identifies the child.
Likewise, if she posts an article about the case on a website, using her own name but not naming the child, is that okay? What if she puts up a photograph of the PARENTS but doesn’t name them? What if somewhere else in her Facebook page, there’s understandably a photograph of her grandchild?
As we get farther and farther along the transparency route, the vagueness about what would constitute indirect identification of the child in these sorts of cases becomes less and less satisfactory.
Lawyers need to be able to know where the boundaries are drawn to properly advise their clients how not to cross them.
People who are unhappy about outcomes of court proceedings need to know where the lines are that they should not cross in talking about the case
Newspapers and moderators of online discussion groups need to know where the lines are so that they don’t inadvertently cross them
Local Authorities need to know where the lines are so that they don’t end up warning or threatening legal action for things that they might wrongly think is a breach
Guardians need to know where the lines are so that children who are capable of understanding know what can and cannot be said about them in the press
And Courts need to know, so that these things can all be transparently expressed.