Rights: privacy, anonymity and freedom of expression on family cases

‘Open justice’ in family proceedings

 

As a High Court judge (Mostyn J) has commented (in Appleton & Anor v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam), [2016] 2 FLR 1) rights to open justice in family proceedings are a mess; though – sad to say, and as will be seen below (the Carmarthenshire case) – he has done his own bit to stir the muddled pot.

 

Family lawyers are debating whether financial relief hearings (an important part of the family courts’ work) should be in open court or in private (as FPR 2010 r 27.10 – though without any statutory or common law underlay) says they must be. Different Family Division judges take different views (and Mostyn J is one of the noisier ones on the subject).

 

Three cases in the last month remind lawyers generally of the variety of application of open justice principles:

 

  • The predominant issue is whether a case should be heard in public as common law has long required (Scott & Anor v Scott [1913] UKHL 2, [1913] AC 417; and see eg ‘To be heard in the dining hall…’: Scott 100 years on). Subsidiary to this are, for exampe:
  • Anonymity for a party to proceedings; or to a witness or others (eg expert witnesses, social workers etc) involved in the case (eg Khuja below);
  • Release of court and other hearing documents (a consequence of the Carmathen case below);
  • Publicity for a private (eg children) case (and the balance to be struck between privacy (European Convention 1950 Art 8) and freedom of expression (Art 10) (eg Southend case below).

 

Khuja : ‘what’s in a name?

 

Khuja v Times Newspapers Ltd [2017] UKSC 49 relates to the open justice principle and a person’s involvement – though not charged – in criminal proceedings. Charges arose from facts which are directly of concern to family lawyers, namely child sexual abuse (see eg Birmingham City Council v Riaz & Ors [2014] EWHC 4247 (Fam), [2015] 2 FLR 763 Keehan J). As Lord Sumption said (giving judgement for the 5:2 justice majority):

 

[1] For some years The Times and other media organisations have taken a close interest in investigating and reporting on allegations that the police and child protection authorities have failed adequately to confront a pattern of crime involving the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young teenage girls by older men. It need hardly be said that this is a subject of serious public concern. It has given rise to a number of government-ordered national inquiries, a review of standards of protection in children’s homes, and substantial changes in the procedures of the police and prosecuting authorities for handling such cases.

 

Nine men were tried on charges involving organised child sex in the Oxford area. Seven men were convicted. Khuja had been arrested, but not charged. After his release without charge, the newspapers successfully applied to lift an order preventing his identification. Khuja wanted to maintain a reporting restrictions order. The newspapers said that Khuja was ‘someone suspected by the police of being involved in sexual offences against children’. They wished to publish information about him ‘confined to material derived from the proceedings at the trial’ (§[4]).

 

The majority (Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale and Lords Sumption, Clarke and Reed: Lords Kerr and Wilson were the minority) noted that the appellant was seeking to prohibit the reporting of matters discussed at public trial. These were not matters where he had any reasonable expectation of privacy. The impact on the appellant’s family life is indirect and incidental: neither he nor his family participated in any capacity at trial, and nothing that was said at trial related to his family.

 

The public interest in allowing the press reporting of court proceedings extends to the appellant’s identity, said Lord Sumption. Media reporting of cases depends on the right of the public to be informed about public acts of the state, balanced against the law’s recognition that how a story is presented is a matter of editorial judgment.

 

Finally, what does a name matter? ‘What’s in a name? asked Lord Rodger in Re Guardian News and Media Ltd [2010] UKSC 1, [2010] 2 AC 697 (and see Lord Sumption at §[29]). Lord Rodger answered himself:

 

‘A lot’, the press would answer. This is because stories about particular individuals are simply much more attractive to readers than stories about unidentified people. It is just human nature. And this is why, of course, even when reporting major disasters, journalists usually look for a story about how particular individuals are affected. Writing stories which capture the attention of readers is a matter of reporting technique, and the European court holds that article 10 protects not only the substance of ideas and information but also the form in which they are conveyed: News Verlags GmbH & Co KG v Austria (2000) 31 EHRR 246, 256, §[39] … More succinctly, Lord Hoffmann observed in Campbell v MGN Ltd [2004] 2 AC 457, 474, §[59], ‘judges are not newspaper editors’.

 

Parents’ right to petition Parliament: Southend case

 

In Southend Borough Council v CO [2017] EWHC 1949 (Fam) MacDonald J considered a case in which parents of two children on whom placement orders had been made had publicised information about them on Facebook and had organised a petition on Change.org.  (Whether the mother had appealed against the placement order was not entirely clear to the judge.) By the time he came to deal with the case the parents – representing themselves – had agreed to the local authority’s application that information be removed from Facebook and other media. However, the mother insisted on their right to pursue their petition ‘addressed to the United Kingdom Parliament and the Prime Minister’. The consequences of any such right for freedom of expression was the issue on which MacDonald J gave judgment.

 

MacDonald J described Change.org as a ‘website that allows people or organisations to start a petition. Once a petition is started, members of the public can sign the petition electronically subject to providing their first and last name, their email address and their postcode’ (§[9]). It has ‘community guidelines’ which include particular reference to safeguarding children and their protection.

 

The local authority based their application on their concern to protect a child’s private life. The mother wanted the petition to remain in place ‘so that she could have her say with respect to a decision that she does not agree with’ (§[16]).

 

After an extensive review of the law, the judge agreed with the mother. The reporting restrictions order remained to the extent agreed between the parties, but not including any restriction on the mother’s right by her petition to advertise her disagreement with the court’s placement order decisions.

 

Right to freedom of expression

 

On the facts of this case (not as a general approach to on-line petitions: §[66]) the judge set out his decision at §[62]. He balanced the rights of the parents to freedom of expression under Convention Art 10 (especially ‘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. He applied the ‘ultimate balancing test’ or proportionality (per Lord Steyn in Re S (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) [2004] UKHL 47, [2005] 1 AC 593, [2005] 1 FLR 591 at §[17]) and held that:

 

[62] … 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.

 

Release of hearings documents

 

The third case is little more than a post-script in all this; but it provides a useful illustration of some of the points considered in ‘Release of court hearing documents’. What documents – when and why? – may a court release to non-parties. What rights to freedom of expression (European Convention 1950 Art 10) do parents have?

 

In Carmarthen County Council v Y and others [2017] EWFC 36 (30 June 2017), Mostyn J considered a preliminary fact-finding issue in children proceedings (the heading to the case hints that it is care proceedings, but he does not say so). This might have been clearer if Mostyn J had remembered – or been reminded by one of the nine barristers in court – of the following comment of his:

 

[4] For an exhaustively full account of the background reference should be made to the chronology prepared by junior counsel for the local authority, which has left no stone unturned. I am grateful for the preparation of that very useful document.

 

But this judge has already made clear that he does not consider that documents in family proceedings should be released (DL v SL [2015] EWHC 2621 (Fam) sub nom L v L (Ancillary Relief Proceedings: Anonymity) [2016] WLR 1259, Mostyn J at §[16]). In law, there are real question on this as explained in ‘Release of court hearing documents’ (above). Thus, in Appleton v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam); [2016] 2 FLR 1, Mostyn J was dealing with an application by the press for reporting restrictions to be lifted for the ancillary relief hearing of well-known musicians (and see Mostyn J in DL v SL [2015] EWHC 2621 (Fam); [2016] 2 FLR 552, also reported as L v L (Ancillary Relief Proceedings: Anonymity)  [2016] 1 WLR 1259). Save to a very limited extent (eg photographs of arrival at court) a reporting restrictions order was retained. Mostyn J [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam) at [12] and [13], adopts Sir Mark’s “watchdog” role for the press:

 

[13] … Further the press are not allowed any access to documents whatsoever – see FPR  r 29.12. This is only consistent with a watchdog role, because without the documents the press can hardly be expected to be able to report the case intelligibly or even-handedly.

 

I think Lords Scarman and Bingham – and probably Sir James Munby P (see eg Norfolk County Council v Webster and Others [2006] EWHC 2898 (Fam), [2007] 2 FLR 415, Munby J – would have reminded Mostyn J of the importance of helping the press, in its ‘watchdog role’ – to make sense of proceedings. Transparency in the family courts remains a poor shadow of what it could be if – even if they are let in – the media and public can make no sense of the facts of what is going on.

 

And in terms of rights? The media have rights to freedom of expression as much as do parents to petition parliament; so long as, in each case, the children invloved remain anonymous.

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