Don’t panic, I am not asking you to sign a petition. Although if I was, it would be for someone to make me some artwork of Sweep as a Transformer. Fighting MeGrimlock. And He-Man. That would be epic. Sweep would kick He-Man to bits. Despite not having legs. That’s how rock Sweep is.
Snap back to reality, oh there goes gravity….
This one covers something that comes up from time to time. Can a parent put a petition about their case online (notably on Change.org) and what can they / can’t they say in it?
Mr Justice MacDonald explains it all
Southend Borough Council v CO 2017
10.The mother’s petition on the Change.org website is entitled “Please help stop the adoption of my 2 beautiful children”. It is directed to the United Kingdom Parliament and to the Prime Minister. In its original form, the explanatory narrative for the petition set out details of the final hearing before the District Judge, details of the orders granted by the court, the names, ages and disabilities of the children. The explanatory narrative also alleged that the social worker “lied under oath” and that the case was heard “without evidence” of emotional harm or neglect. Whilst, as I have already noted, there is no indication in the papers before me that the decision of the District Judge has been the subject of an appeal, but that certain information provided by the mother since the hearing suggests an appeal is at least contemplated, the explanatory narrative on the petition states that the mother is “applying to appeal to a higher court” to “put evidence before a judge to prove the social worker has lied under oath”. In its original form, the petition also exhibited a photograph of N and T, T being dressed in her school uniform.
If you’re not familiar with Change.org, it is one of those government initiatives like the Cones Hotline, aimed at empowering the public. In effect, anyone can set up a petition online at Change.org asking for others to sign it. If you get enough signatures (100,000 I believe), Parliament will debate your question.
(My prior experience with Change.org, other than it hosting petitions on behalf of parents who have lost their children in Court hearings, was Dave Gorman’s piece on it. http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2014/10/09/dave-gorman-on-government-e-petitions-hilarious-and-perceptive/ )
The Council issued Court proceedings, and the parents agreed at an interim stage to take down the portions of the petitions that would identify the children (their names, surnames, the photographs) but wanted the petition itself to stay up.
The Council considered that the petition, given that the signatories were all members of the extended family, still identified the family and hence the children, and sought removal of it in its entireity. Some of the responders also used the children’s names in comments when adding their signatures.
It is very clear that a parent can’t name the children or put photographs of them on the petition (and if for some reason you doubted that before, MacDonald J makes it very plain in this judgment) but the more difficult area is whether the petition is legitimate once those readily identifying features have been removed.
Here’s what the petition looked like at the start of the final hearing on this issue
11.Following the consent order of 25 May 2017, it took a little time for the parents to comply fully with the terms of that order. On 30 May 2017, the children’s names had been removed from the main page of the petition but the photographs of N and T remained visible and the other details were unaltered. On 8 June 2017, the photographs of N and T had been replaced with a photograph of all four children with their faces partially obscured. Ms Duxbury has confirmed that the parents have now complied fully with the consent order of 25 May 2017 with respect to the pictures, names and ages of the children that had been published on the main page of the petition on the Change.org website. As I have noted, friends and acquaintances of the parents have, on a limited number of occasions, identified the children by their forenames when responding to the petition and those posts remain. The current front page of the Change.org petition, which names the mother, reads as follows:
“In May 2017 family court granted, a full care order and placement order on all 4 of my beautiful children, despite me having solid evidence and this case was heard without evidence of emotional harm, neglect so I am applying to appeal to higher court so I can put evidence before a judge to prove to them i have never neglected my children , nor would i ever put them at risk of any sort of harm (i love my children with all my heart ❤ my focus on life is them) Having my children is my greatest achievement, they are my saviour they switched my focus from the outside to the inside. My children are gifts, they remind me of what's important. please help by signing this petition to reunite my family.<3"
That’s made me all nostalgic for 1337, I haven’t seen a “less than three” for ages and ages. I thought emojis had seen off 1337-speak. Aw, readers, I less than three all of you.
(And she managed to get a heart emoji in, so the less than three at the end is deliberate. Perhaps this mother is an uber haxxor who is keen to bring leet-speak back ?)
However, first, MacDonald J invites the usher to bring out the Naughty Step for the Local Authority and the legal department specifically.
before turning to the substantive issue, I must make some observations about an unfortunate course of conduct by the local authority following the granting of the order by consent on 25 May 2017.
7.Following the hearing on 25 May 2017, the mother contacted the court to alert it to the fact that the local authority was writing to members of her family in a manner that suggested that those family members were bound by the order of 25 May 2017 and prohibited from adding their names and comments to the Change.org petition. Having seen a copy of the letter being circulated by the local authority, I was satisfied that it does indeed read in that way and I notified the local authority through my Clerk that I would require an explanation.
8.The local authority now accepts that the letter it sent to family members does, wrongly, intimate that the order of 25 May 2017 prohibited family members from responding to the petition. Whilst the letter in question was written and sent by the allocated social worker, it would be wrong to criticise her. The social worker, as one would expect, sent the letter to the legal department of the local authority for checking before sending it out and the legal department returned the letter to the social worker un-amended for dissemination. The actions of this local authority legal department in permitting a letter in the terms drafted by the social worker to be sent are strongly to be deprecated. It is a matter of very grave concern that a local authority would seek to pass off an order of this court as something that it is not. There must be no repeat of this.
The legal framework (if petition is anonymised) boils down to article 10 (right to free expression) versus article 8 (child’s right to privacy)
20.The nature and ambit of the balancing exercise is well established. In considering whether to grant an order with respect to the publication of information the judge must balance the competing rights engaged. In many cases these will be the rights under Art 8 (respect for private and family life) and Art 10 (freedom of expression), although other rights may also have to be placed in the balance when reaching a decision regarding the publication of information. When conducting a balancing exercise between Art 8 and Art 10 (and any other rights engaged), the court applies the four propositions identified by Lord Steyn in Re S (A Child) (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) at , namely:
i) First, no article has, as such, precedence over the other;
ii) Secondly, where the values under the articles are in conflict, an intense focus on the comparative importance of the specific rights being claimed in the individual case is necessary;
iii) Thirdly, the justifications for interfering with or restricting each right must be taken into account;
iv) Finally, the proportionality test must be applied to each, referred to by Lord Steyn as “the ultimate balancing test”.
21.In applying what Lord Steyn described as the “ultimate balancing test” of proportionality the court must consider carefully whether the order that is being sought is proportionate having regard to the end that the order seeks to achieve (JXMX v Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust  EWCA Civ 96). This will involve an exacting analysis of the factual case advanced in defence of the measure in question (in this case the removal of the petition) to determine (a) whether the objective of the measure is sufficiently important to justify the limitation of a fundamental right, (b) whether the measure is rationally connected to the objective, (c) whether a less intrusive measure could be used and (d) whether having regard to these matters and to the severity of the consequences a fair balance has been struck between the rights of the individual and the needs of the community (Bank Mellat v HM Treasury (No 2)  2 AC 700 at ).
22.In A Local Authority v W, L, W, T and R (by the Children’s Guardian)  1 FLR 1 at , Sir Mark Potter P summarised the approach to the requisite balancing exercise as follows:
“The exercise to be performed is one of parallel analysis in which the starting point is presumptive parity in that neither article has precedence over or ‘trumps’ the other. The exercise of parallel analysis requires the courts to examine the justification of interfering with each right and the issue of proportionality is to be considered in respect of each. It is not a mechanical exercise to be decided upon the basis of rival generalities. An intense focus on the comparative importance of the specific rights being claimed in the individual case is necessary before the ultimate balancing test in terms of proportionality is carried out. Having so stated, Lord Steyn strongly emphasised the interest in open justice as a factor to be accorded great weight in both the parallel analysis and the ultimate balancing test …”
23.Within the balancing exercise, the child’s best interests are not paramount but rather are a primary consideration. Those best interests must accordingly be considered first, although they can be outweighed by the cumulative effect of other considerations (Re J (Reporting Restriction)  1 FLR 531 at ).
24.In undertaking the requisite balancing exercises, the impact of publication on the child must be weighed by the court (Re S (A Child) (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) at ). Whilst in many cases it will be demonstrated that publication will have an adverse impact on the child, this will not be the position inevitably. In Clayton v Clayton at  Sir Mark Potter P said:
“…given the existence of section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 which is apt to prevent publication or reporting of the substance of, or the evidence or issues in, the proceedings (save in so far as permitted by the court or as revealed in any judgment delivered in open court), I do not think that, as a generality, it is right to assume that identification of a child as having been involved in proceedings will involve harm to his or her welfare interests or failure to respect the child’s family or private life.”
25.In the circumstances, in each case the impact on the child of publication must be assessed by reference to the evidence before the court rather than by reference to a presumption that publication will be inevitably harmful to the child (see also R v Robert Jolleys, Ex Parte Press Association  EWCA Crim 1135 at  and PGS (Appellant) v News Group Newspapers Ltd (Respondent)  UKSC 26 at ).
26.Within this context, the court will require clear and cogent evidence on which to base its decision. Some of the evidence on which the requisite balancing exercise is undertaken will necessarily involve a degree of speculation (Re W (Children)(Identification: Restrictions on Publication)  1 FLR 1) although there comes a point where evidence is not merely speculative but pure speculation (Birmingham City Council v Riaz and others  EWHC 4247 (Fam)).
MacDonald J also raised (but sensibly ruled that he didn’t need to decide the point) an argument about the Bill of Rights 1689. This seems a tricky point for a later Court to resolve. Brrrr.
32.The right of the subject to petition the Crown for redress for personal grievances was recognised in Magna Carta (although it probably dates to the Anglo-Saxon monarchs of England) and, more explicitly, in an Act of 1406 (Rotuli Paliamentorium 7 & 8 Hen. IV, No 63). The Bill of Rights of 1689 (1 William & Mary, session 2, cap 2) restated the right to petition the Crown, and the protection afforded to that right, in clear and unambiguous terms, stipulating that “…it is the right of the subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.” The Bill of Rights continues to apply in England and Wales. The right of the citizen to petition Parliament or the Government in respect of a personal grievance has thus been, and remains a fundamental constitutional principle (within the context of the right to Petition the European Parliament under Art 44 of the European Charter of Fundamental rights, the right to petition has been described as a fundamental right (see C-261/13 P Schönberger v Parliament)). Within this context, the House of Commons has a comprehensive body of rules that make provision for the submission of public petitions (see HC Standing Orders (Public Business) (2009)).
33.I did not hear detailed submissions on the operation of the Bill of Rights in this case and, specifically, on the effect (if any) of the prohibition it contains on “commitments and prosecutions” with respect to petitions seeking redress. Given the answer produced by the balancing exercise in respect of the ECHR rights engaged in this case, it has not been necessary to consider the point further. However, in a case where the balancing exercise were to come down in favour of injuncting a parent from circulating online a petition aimed at seeking redress from Parliament, it may well be necessary to go on to consider whether the fact that “all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal” under the Bill of Rights of 1689 renders such a course unlawful.
(i.e is a petition to Parliament the same as petitioning the King, and prosecution for such petitioning is illegal, or is it only petitions to the King/Queen? In which case, Her Majesty is going to get an increased post-bag. )
In this case, the LA raised several arguments to say that publication of the anonymised petition would cause harm to the children, MacDonald J recognised each of these as having POTENTIAL to cause harm generally, but held that the LA had not produced evidence about the harm to these particular children
44.Turning in detail to the contended for justifications for interfering with the Art 10 rights of the parents relied on by the local authority, Ms Duxbury essentially submits that it is a matter of common sense that if C and W see online that their mother does not accept the outcome of the proceedings nor the validity of the care orders, this will act to upset the two children and undermine the stability and security of their respective foster placements. However, aside from this assumption, the local authority provides no specific evidence to support its contention that the presence of the petition, and its contents will cause emotional harm to C and W by means of causing them upset and potentially de-stabilising their respective foster placements.
45.Whilst it is the case that W’s foster placement has recently broken down, and Ms Duxbury informs the court that the foster carers feel that the precipitating issue was a level of anger and frustration being generated in W resulting from conflicting information being received from his birth family, there is no evidence before the court demonstrating that the breakdown resulted from the petition on the Change.org website (as opposed to, for example, exchanges during contact). Further, the assumption inherent in Ms Duxbury’s submission itself must be interrogated by reference to the nature of the information contained in the petition. W is 15 years old and C is 14 years old. Both children are fully aware that they were the subject of care and placement proceedings, that their parents do not agree with the decision of the court and that the parents wish the boys to be returned to their care. Within this context, the information set out in the petition will not result in the children becoming aware of views held by their parents’ regarding their placements of which they were previously oblivious. Whilst it may be said that, if it is permitted to remain online, the fact of, and the information contained in the petition acts to reinforce in the children’s minds their parents lack of acceptance of their placements following the outcome of proceedings, once again there is no evidence before the court that this is in fact the case.
46.Likewise, the local authority provides no specific evidence to support its contention that the presence of the petition, and its contents will disrupt efforts to find adoptive placements for T and N, or make an already challenging home-finding task more difficult, by discouraging prospective adopters from putting themselves forward. The highest that Ms Duxbury can put that submission is to assert that the online petition “could create anxiety with potential adopters”. Once again, whilst it may be said that it is a common-sense proposition that prospective adopters will be more reluctant to consider children who are the subject of an active online campaign, each case turns on its own facts and the assumption must be interrogated by reference to the evidence before the court. Within this context it is again important to look at the nature of the information contained in the petition. The petition makes clear that the children were the subject of proceedings, that the parents opposed to the plan of adoption and that the parents do not accept, and continue to oppose the outcome of the proceedings. All this is information that will be known to any prospective adopters. Within this context, the information set out in the petition will not result in prospective adopters becoming aware of information they would not otherwise be privy to. Whilst it may be argued that the presence of a petition indicating continued, active opposition by a parent following the conclusion of proceedings may act in more subtle ways on an adopter’s willingness to consider the children, once again this is an assumption rather than an evidenced fact. Indeed, information communicated to the court by the mother following the hearing tends to suggest that the local authority has now located adopters for T notwithstanding the existence of the online petition.
47.Finally, the local authority offers no evidence at all to support the alleged risk that the material already in the public domain will cause ongoing embarrassment and, potentially, emotional harm to the children as they get older in circumstances where it will remain on the Internet indefinitely in an easily and repeatedly accessible form. I accept that the fact that information is already in the public domain does not prevent injunctive relief where it can be shown that the repetition of known facts about an individual amounts to an unjustified interference with the private life of that person (see JIH v News Group Newspapers Ltd  EWHC 2818 (QB) at ). However, once again, in this case the nature of the information is important.
48.The information contained in the petition setting out the mother’s objections and assertions regarding the fairness of the proceedings is, as I have outlined, relatively innocuous (once again, it does not contain details of the evidence before the court or details of the harm the court was satisfied that the children have suffered and does not seek to discuss the children’s individual needs), particularly when compared to other information that the courts have permitted to remain online (see for example Re J (Reporting Restriction), where the information in question was a video of the execution of an emergency protection order showing the child being removed in circumstances that were distressing, which video the court permitted to remain online subject to an order requiring the anonymisation of the name of the child). Further, the local authority offers no evidence to suggest that a petition placed online in response to a judicial decision in 2016, to which 160 people signed up and which received its last signature two months ago, is likely to be accessed in future years by others to the extent that it will result in embarrassment to the children, much less emotional harm. Again, whilst it is possible to speculate that this might be the case, given the nature of the information and the relatively small number of people who have accessed it at a time when it is relatively current, the court needs more than mere speculation before such a conclusion can be drawn. I also again bear in mind that the Administration of Justice Act 1960 does not act to prevent child being identified as having been the subject of proceedings.
49.In the circumstances, I am satisfied that there is very little cogent evidence before the court that each of the children or any of them will suffer embarrassment, much less emotional harm if the petition on the Change.org website remains in place online. Within this context, once again, it must be remembered that what the court is examining is whether there is evidence which amounts to a justification for interfering with the cardinal right of freedom of expression for the purposes of Art 10(2). Whilst it is, of course, possible to formulate a number of common-sense assumptions with respect to the potential impact on each of the children of persons accessing the online petition, the reality is that the justifications on which the local authority seeks to rely for interfering with the parents’ right to freedom of expression under Art 8 are poorly evidenced and largely speculative in nature.
The Judge’s conclusions are very plain that his decision (to allow the anonymised petition to stay up) is not one about the merits or otherwise of petitions and not a template to be followed in all future cases, but about the merits of THIS case and that the LA needed to show evidence about the impact or potential impact on these particular children which would have justified an interference with article 10 and that they, in THIS case, had not done so. It doesn’t mean that a Local Authority in another case would not be able to produce such evidence that would justify the petition being removed.
60.Finally, in respect of the contended for justifications for interfering in the Art 8 right of the children for respect for private life, in this case one of the main factors driving the interference in the children’s Art 8 right is the fact that the mother’s name appears on the front page of the petition and the children are referred to by their forenames in a limited number of the responses to that petition. Against this, the ability of a parent to make clear who is speaking out or seeking to petition for redress is self-evidently very important, it being very difficult, if not impossible, to effectively protest a contended for injustice or petition for redress of a personal grievance if the protester or the petitioner must remain anonymous and prevented from providing any salient details of their grievance that may breach that anonymity.
61.Having regard to the foregoing parallel analysis of the importance of the rights engaged in this case and the respective justifications for interfering with the same set out above, in which I have considered each of the children’s best interests as a primary consideration, and applying the ultimate balancing test of proportionality, I am satisfied that the local authority’s application for an injunction compelling the parents to take down their online petition must be dismissed.
62.Balancing the Art 10 right to freedom of expression of the parents (in the context of the importance of that right, the importance of parents who are the subject of state intervention being able to express their views about, the constitutional importance of the right to petition Parliament and the Government for redress with respect to a personal grievance and the importance of the ability of a parent to make clear who is speaking out or seeking to petition for redress) against the Art 8 right of the children to respect for their private and family life (in the context of the importance of that the right for the psychological integrity, personal development, development of social relationships and physical and social identity of the children and the court not being satisfied, having regard to the nature of the information and the children’s prior knowledge of it, that the evidence establishes that publication will cause emotional harm to C and W and potentially de-stabilising their respective foster placements, disrupt efforts to find adoptive placements for T and N or cause ongoing embarrassment to the children as they get older) leads me to conclude in this case the Art 10 right to freedom of expression outweighs the Art 8 right to respect for private and family life when it comes to the question of the online petition being taken down. Applying the ultimate balancing test of proportionality, in my judgment it cannot be said in this case that compelling the parents to take down their online petition directed at Parliament and Government, or compelling them to remove from the petition the mother’s name and the responses which utilise the forenames of the children, represents a proportionate response to the risk to the psychological integrity, personal development, development of social relationships and physical and social identity of the children presented by the limited amount of information concerning the children that the petition now contains.
63.For all the reasons I have given, the application of the local authority for an order compelling the parents to take down their petition on the Change.org website is accordingly dismissed. The order made by agreement on 25 May 2016 will continue in force.
64.I recognise that my decision will leave online a limited amount of information concerning the children in a format that has the potential to identify them as having been the subject of proceedings. However, cases dealing with the publication of information concerning children must be decided by the careful and rigorous application of the well-established legal principles articulated earlier in this judgment. As the President observed in Re J (Reporting Restriction), in the face of the challenges presented by the Internet we cannot simply abandon basic legal principles, as Lord Sumption observed in Prest v Petrodel Resources Ltd  2 AC 415, courts exercising family jurisdiction do not occupy a desert island in which general legal concepts are suspended or mean something different and as Hayden J observed in Re J (A Minor)  EWHC 2595 (Fam), with respect to the balancing exercise required in cases of this nature, in a mature family justice system the weight afforded to the right to freedom of expression must be recognised and engaged with.
65.Within this context, cases dealing with the publication of information concerning children who are, or who have been the subject of family proceedings will necessarily involve competing interests. The court is required to balance a right that is important to the individual subject children, children who will often have been exposed to significant personal trauma, against a cardinal right that is important to parents, to children and to society as a whole. Where the court is required to strike this balance, a solution that comprehensively satisfies all interests is not possible.
66.Finally, I emphasise that this is a decision that turns on its own facts. It is not a judgment on the merits or demerits of online petitions generally, whether in the context of family proceedings or otherwise. Rather, it represents only the product of applying the required balancing exercise to the very particular circumstances of this case.
67.That is my judgment.