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It’s clobbering time ! Or not, as it turns out – Italian C-section case, the President’s judgment

 

Thanks to Jerry for tweeting that this was up – I didn’t even know there was an application. Okay, if you have been on a desert island in December – the Sunday Telegraph ran a story about social workers arranging a c-section for an Italian mother who had had a panic attack so they could steal her baby. A few days later, the press reported that Munby LJ (now the President of the Family Division) had called the case in, and demanding that social workers answer for their dreadful actions.

 

Over the course of a few days, we got more of the official judgments published, and one could see that although there were problems here the luridness of the reporting was not perhaps bourne out by the actual facts. (There are legitimate public debates about whether the mother’s representation in these situations is forceful enough against the State’s wishes, whether there should be a higher test for judicial declarations on c-sections, whether the placement order judgment made before Re B, Re B-S et al would now survive if we re-ran the case now, whether the State ought to have a mechanism to get the country that the mother is from to seize the case, and a few other bits and pieces) – but the press driven debate of “Should social workers be able to impose a c-section to snatch a baby” is a non-starter. The answer is an emphatic, no, they shouldn’t. Which is why they don’t.

 

Anyway, the case found its way to the President, ostensibly as a return of the Reporting Restriction Order (see last blog), although it appears that part of the thinking was that the President was about to open up a can of whoop ass on social workers.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/4048.html

On 3 December 2013 a national newspaper ran a front page story under the headline ‘EXLAIN WHY YOU SNATHCHED BABY AT BIRTH’. The strapline, ‘Judge’s order to social workers behind forced caesarean’, was elaborated in the accompanying article, which stated that I had “demanded to know why the girl should not be reunited with her mother”. That was simply not so. All I had done was as I have set out above. I had directed no hearing. How could I? And I had given no directions as to the evidence that might be required at some future hearing of an application that had not yet been made. How could I? All I had done was to direct that any further application was to be heard by me. In other words, if any application was made, either in the Court of Protection or in the family court, I would hear it. That was all. Unhappily this canard has been much repeated in the media.

 

What the President does say is that the case raises important principles which are worthy of discussion, and building on his judgment in Re J, considers that transparency and being able to see the judgments and scrutinise them is a vital part of that.

 

    1. In the present case, as typically, a number of competing interests are engaged, protected by Articles 6, 8 and 10 of the Convention. Three competing interests, in particular, have to be considered here. I take them in no particular order.

 

    1. The public has an interest in knowing and discussing what has been done in this case, both in the Court of Protection and in the Chelmsford County Court. Given the circumstances of the case and the extreme gravity of the issues which here confronted the courts – whether to order an involuntary caesarean section and whether to place a child for adoption despite the protests of the mother – it is hard to imagine a case which more obviously and compellingly requires that public debate be free and unrestricted.

 

    1. The mother has an equally obvious and compelling claim to be allowed to tell her story to the world. I repeat what I have on previous occasions (see most recently Re J, para 36) about the importance in a free society of parents who feel aggrieved at their experiences of the family justice system being able to express their views publicly about what they conceive to be failings on the part of individual judges or failings in the judicial system and likewise being able to criticise local authorities and others. I repeat what I said last week (Re P [2013] EWHC 4037 (Fam), para 4):

 

“The mother wishes to complain publicly about the way in which the courts in this country have handled her and her daughter. The court should be very slow indeed before preventing a parent doing what the mother wishes to do in the present case.”

If ever there was a case in which that right should not be curtailed it is surely this case. To deny this mother in the circumstances of this case the right to speak out – and, I emphasise, to speak out, if this is her wish, using her own name and displaying her own image – would be affront not merely to the law but also, surely, to any remotely acceptable concept of human dignity and, indeed, humanity itself.

    1. P also, it should go without saying, has an equally compelling claim to privacy and anonymity.

 

  1. How then, in the final analysis, is the court to balance these competing demands?

 

The Judge defends, to an extent, some of the inaccurate and tendentious reporting

 

    1. Before parting from the case there are two points that require to be addressed with honesty and candour. Both relate to the fact that, when this story first ‘broke’ on 1 December 2013, none of the relevant information was in the public domain in this country.

 

    1. The first point is this: How can the family justice system blame the media for inaccuracy in the reporting of family cases if for whatever reason none of the relevant information has been put before the public?

 

  1. The second point is, if anything, even more important. This case must surely stand as final, stark and irrefutable demonstration of the pressing need for radical changes in the way in which both the family courts and the Court of Protection approach what for shorthand I will refer to as transparency. We simply cannot go on as hitherto. Many more judgments must be published. And, as this case so very clearly demonstrates, that applies not merely to the judgments of |High Court Judges; it applies also to the judgments of Circuit Judges.

 

It is a reasonable point. Whilst the placement order hearing had little of public import until the case broke, my view is that every Court of Protection declaration judgment ought to be published in anonymised form. Looking at the law reports, there are such few c-section cases reported since the introduction of the Mental Capacity Act, I think all of them ought to be published as a matter of routine – Mostyn J’s judgment was important and should have been published and available even before this furore. If it had been, it is likely that when the story broke, factual inaccuracies could have been put right (or heaven forbid, the journalists involved might even have tried to find the judgments)

I also happen to believe that any family court application for a Reporting Restriction Order should be published in such anonymised form as is necessary to protect the individuals privacy. We can’t have family law becoming like super-injunctions, where we don’t get told that there is something we can’t know.  (The RROs in this case were put up very promptly, which does the Court service and the judges involved a lot of credit)

 

Munby does have a word of caution for the Press, however

 

think I should repeat what I said earlier this year when addressing the Annual Conference of the Society of Editors:

 

“dare I suggest that the media should remember the great C P Scott’s famous aphorism that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” I recently gave a judgment that received coverage in the media. A legal commentator* suggested that readers might wish to compare and contrast what I had actually said with how it was reported: “Compare. And contrast … And weep.””

 

*Waves at Pink Tape

 

 

“Don’t put your daughter on the stage – if you want to claim Disability Living Allowance for her”

The High Court have just published twin judgments on an interesting case, relating to reporting restriction orders – Re Z  v News Group Newspapers 2013

 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/1150.html

 Is the first one, at which the Reporting Restriction order was sought and obtained  (I think with a late sitting hour)

 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/1371.html

 Is the second one, at which the Court determined how that Reporting Restriction Order would be altered if the outcome of the criminal trial was that mother was convicted.

 It is a peculiar one, since although the children in the case were pivotal to the offences, they were neither victims of the alleged offences, nor witnesses in the criminal trial, which meant that all of the restrictions on reporting from the criminal trial which would otherwise ensure the anonymity of the children were dislodged.

 It became apparent to the children’s father that the national press were interested in the story (for reasons which will become apparent) and he therefore made a stand-alone application to the family courts for a Reporting Restriction Order.   These two cases are a very good summary of the competing interests of article 8 privacy, and article 10 freedom of the press.

 Why was the Press interested?  Well, this background  (and the current context of ‘benefit cheats’ ) explains why

  1. Mrs Z is the mother of eight children. They are A (aged 23), B (aged 21), C (aged 19), D (aged 16), E (aged 15), F (aged 12), G (aged 9), and H (aged 7).
  1. The Applicant is the father of D, E, F, G, and H. It is the Applicant’s case (see para.4 application) that the oldest six children (A, B, C, D, E and F) all have special needs. Five of the mother’s children, A, C, D, E, and F are cited in the indictments to which I have referred (and which I discuss more fully below); of those, three of them (D, E and F) are currently minor children.
  1. The trial of Mrs Z focuses on a number of claims for Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Carer’s Allowance (in respect of the child C) and other tax credits which Mrs Z is alleged to have made in respect of a number of her children, over an extended period of ten years.
  1. The prosecution case, in summary, is that Mrs Z was not entitled to those non-means tested benefits, and she knew that she was not so entitled. It is alleged that Mrs Z had made these claims based on the assertion that five of the children “suffered from problems with their speech and language, physical disabilities, mental health problems and severe learning disabilities and behavioural problems” (§1.4 prosecuting opening note) including “handicaps, phobias and intolerances e.g. ‘difficulty with walking’, ‘poor co-ordination’, ‘poor spatial awareness’, ‘unclear speech’, ‘fear of crowds’, ‘difficulty following instructions’, ‘difficulties getting dressed’, ‘cant wash or bathe’ and ‘needs help with toilet’” (§1.4 ibid.). These claims were reported to be independently verified, including (in some respects) by a consultant paediatrician, Dr. K.
  1. Proof of the falsity of the claims, asserts the prosecution, is that the disabilities and problems which Mrs Z claimed her children were suffering were not compatible with their various activities and other achievements. In particular, for periods of time when Mrs Z was asserting (for the purposes of the benefit claim) that the children suffered “various disabilities and conditions which materially affected their care and/or mobility needs” (see §1.3 prosecuting opening note), they were (according to the Crown) all in mainstream school, successful in their academic subjects, and apparently able to undertake physical exercise in school.
  1. Perhaps most notably, it is said that three of the children attended a specialist theatre school, became successful child actors/actresses and appeared in amateur and professional productions in regional theatres, and even on the West End stage, including appearances in a number of well-known and successful productions; they appeared on the television. In their theatrical and public roles they were said to be involved in acting, dancing, and singing – “wholly inconsistent” (says the Crown: §1.9) “with the care and mobility needs described by the defendant“.

 

 

Yes, one can see in the light of that, and the information that the total sum of alleged fraud with which mother was charged amounted to £365,000 , why there were print journalists at the trial, frantically licking their pencil tips and writing punning headlines   (for shame, punning headlines are a dreadful sin)

 So, the competing interests here were in the press being able to report on a criminal trial   [see the quotation below from the Trinity Mirror case] and on the protection of children who were, although not victims per se of the alleged offences, were certainly innocent of them and who might very well be stigmatised were their identities made public

 

  1. In our judgment it is impossible to over-emphasise the importance to be attached to the ability of the media to report criminal trials. In simple terms this represents the embodiment of the principle of open justice in a free country. An important aspect of the public interest in the administration of criminal justice is that the identity of those convicted and sentenced for criminal offences should not be concealed. Uncomfortable though it may frequently be for the defendant that is a normal consequence of his crime. Moreover the principle protects his interests too, by helping to secure the fair trial which, in Lord Bingham of Cornhill’s memorable epithet, is the defendant’s “birthright”. From time to time occasions will arise where restrictions on this principle are considered appropriate, but they depend on express legislation, and, where the Court is vested with a discretion to exercise such powers, on the absolute necessity for doing so in the individual case“.

 

 

 

The Court were unsurprisingly taken to a very recent authority balancing article 8 and article 10, particularly on preserving anonymity of children in a case where their mother was convicted of remarkable offences clearly in the public interest to report  – the case bears careful reading, if you have not already encountered it

 

 

  1. The application of the balancing exercise can be found in a number of cases in the Family Division, and increasingly in the Court of Protection. One of the most recent decisions is that of Peter Jackson J in A Council v M, F, and others [2012] EWHC 2038 (Fam) in which he said this (at §82-84):

82. The resolution of this conflict of legitimate interests can only be achieved by close attention to the circumstances that actually exist in the individual case. As Sir Mark Potter has said, the approach must be hard-headed and even, from the point of view of this jurisdiction, hard-hearted.

83. Rights arising under Art. 8 on the one hand and Art. 10 on the other are different in quality. Art. 8 rights are by their nature of crucial importance to a few, while Art. 10 rights are typically of general importance to many. The decided cases, together with s.12(4) HRA, act as a strong reminder that the rights of the many should not be undervalued and incrementally eroded in response to a series of hard cases of individual misfortune.

84. On the other hand, there is no hierarchy of rights in this context and there are cases where individual rights must prevail. In highly exceptional cases this can even include making inroads into the fundamental right to report criminal proceedings, but only where that is absolutely necessary.

 

I respectfully adopt this analysis.

 

 

The Court tried very hard to balance what could or could not go into the public domain, and recognised the legitimate public interest in the public knowing that taxpayers money earmarked for the most deserving and needy of families had been diverted by means of fraud.   Whilst the criminal trial was pending, a widely drawn Reporting Restriction Order was in place.

 

The Press, understandably, wanted to test whether this would be more narrowly drawn if the mother went on to be convicted at trial, hence the second judgment.

 

The Judge did indeed draw the order more narrowly, whilst still striving to protect the anonymity of the children,

 

  1. In reaching conclusions on the supporting information, I have sought to strike the appropriate balance between competing Convention rights, guarding against disproportionate interference with each. In this respect I have concluded that if, but only if, such publication is likely to lead to the identification of the children, adult children, or Mr Z as being involved or named in the criminal proceedings heard at the named Crown Court, and/or as being the children of the defendant (hereafter Mrs Z):

i) There shall be no publication or broadcasting of the forenames of the children, including the adult children, so as to protect, as far as I am able, some cherished rights to privacy; this applies particularly for the child E, and to a lesser extent D and F, but in view of my intention to reduce identification and unwarranted intrusion into family life for their sake and generally, the other children too;

ii) For the same reason, there shall be no reporting of any picture being or including a picture of either the children, the adult children, or the Applicant Mr Z;

iii) Given that the Applicant, Mr Z, is likely to be assuming the care of the younger children in the event that Mrs Z receives a custodial sentence, there shall be no reporting of his forename, consistent with my desire to respect so far as is possible some Article 8 privacy for the children;

iv) There shall be no reporting of any medical conditions or disabilities which the children (whether adult or minor) are said to suffer other than those conditions or disabilities which were said to have been reported by Mrs Z in the context of her claims for benefit; for the avoidance of doubt, there shall be no public reporting of the contents of the recent CAMHS letter concerning child E;

v) There can be identification of the Crown Court (and the trial Judge) at which the trial has taken place, and the County in which the family live. No more specific information relevant to the address or location of the family is justified;

vi) There will be no restriction on reporting of the fact that the children concerned are a sibling group of eight. In reaching my conclusion on this aspect, which I found less easy than other aspects to resolve, I took the view that this information did not of itself materially add to the identification of the family in such a way as to interfere with their Article 8 rights, given the general availability of other information which will be available in accordance with my order.

 And you will note that this obviously allows the naming of Mrs Z, and publication of photographs of her, allows for the facts outlined in the background already included to be published.

 The Judge ends with a very pithy conclusion

 In my judgment, those who cheat the over-stretched resources of the welfare state can neither generally nor reasonably expect to escape the proper reporting of their wrongdoing, or hope to achieve the concealment of their identities. It is with considerable regret that in varying the Reporting Restriction Order in the event of a conviction, I will expose the children of Mrs Z to the risk of identification. A guilty verdict would reflect the jury’s satisfaction that Mrs Z had improperly used her children as innocent instruments of her crime; if this is the outcome of the criminal process, then it is she alone who has unhappily heaped upon her family the misery, shame and disadvantage, which is the inevitable consequence of her offending.

“Friendly McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear”

{Am hoping for no more McKenzie Friend cases for a while, as am out of puns… }

 The Court of Appeal have decided another McKenzie Friend case – judgment not up on Baiili yet, so all comments qualified by the fact that I haven’t been able to read the judgment itself.

 RE F (CHILDREN) (2013)

 

In this case, the mother had been involved in care proceedings, a finding of non accidental injury was made and Care Orders had been made. The mother applied for permission to appeal and asked for M to be her McKenzie Friend. M produced a document in support of mother’s case.

 The LA objected to this McKenzie Friend being involved, and the Court heard the request for M to be mother’s McKenzie Friend without M being able to come into Court.

 The application was refused and thereafter the mother refused to participate in the proceedings on the basis that her article 6 rights had been breached. She then appealed.

 The Court of Appeal held that the Judge had been entitled to refuse M becoming a McKenzie Friend, although there was a presumption that a litigant in person should be able to have a McKenzie Friend, and also that the Judge was entitled to determine that although M had not been allowed to come into Court.

 Frankly, this case seemed to hinge on M herself, and the document submitted. (This is the extract from Lawtel’s summary, other case law websites are available)

 

The relevant Practice Guidance also assumed that the proposed McKenzie friend would be in court on the application for permission to act. However, the judge’s decision in this case could not be faulted. He had seen the statement produced by M. It was a striking document.

It made clear that M had embarked on a campaign concerning the family justice system and the conduct of the local authority, that she did not respect the confidentiality of the family justice system in other cases and in the instant case, and that she did not understand the role of a McKenzie friend, which was to assist with presentation of the case in court in a neutral manner.

It was clear that M had a personal interest in the instant case and expected to give evidence to make good her contentions. Her ability to be a McKenzie friend had been compromised by the statement. She claimed that she had the permission of those involved to disclose details of other cases, but the confidentiality of family proceedings was a matter for the court. 

Mother was entitled to a McKenzie friend, but M was not a suitable person for that role. If M had been in court on mother’s application, the judge would not have changed his view. He acted within the ambit of his discretion on the basis that M might not respect the confidentiality of the proceedings.

 The confidentiality issue is of course a good point  [although it could, it seems to me, to have been dealt with by making a reporting restriction order, or seeking undertakings]

 but is it a valid reason to refuse someone as a McKenzie Friend because they are a campaigner opposed to the current family justice system, and perhaps have strident views about it?

 They might not be the best person to coolly advise and assist the litigant in person, they might not be the best person for the role, but if they follow the Practice Direction (and if not, the Court warns them that they may have to be excluded)  shouldn’t the parent be able to choose who they want?

 A parent who has had their child removed might very well want someone assisting them who is of the view that family proceedings often get things wrong, that children are unnecessarily removed, that social work decisions need to be questioned.

 If one, for example, were choosing between John Hemming MP and Martin Narey, to be your McKenzie Friend   (and other McKenzie Friends are of course available, this is just as an illustration)  I can see perfectly well why as a parent you might want the one who is critical of the fairness of the current system.

 It appears to be that the document was so peculiar and wide of the mark that it spoke for itself.  And that if the M had held those views, but was respectful of the rules of behaviour and confidentiality, she could have acted as McKenzie Friend for mother.  I hope, and suspect, that this will be plain in the full judgment, that it is not the beliefs that M held that made her unsuitable, but the actions she took as a result of those beliefs.

The Court of Appeal do make it plain that mother is entitled to a McKenzie Friend, just not this one.

 Provided the McKenzie Friend conducts themselves properly in Court, it seems to me that a parent is entitled to seek out help from the person they choose; just as a parent who is represented is entitled to prefer to have a ‘tenacious’ barrister rather than a ‘dispassionate, forensic’ one to represent them.