Protect Child Privacy in the Family Courts!

Over a year ago now I started working with NYAS on stopping the media from having greater access to the family courts, now this is not because we just want something to fight about but rather because there is a whole hot of issues the government have not properly considered including the great potential for jigsaw identification. Rather than reiterate the issues outlined in an earlier post, or what was said in the consultation again, I instead urge you to look back and give it a read.

In 2010 the Government made a commitment to explore the views of young people before implementing Part 2 of the Children Schools and Families Act 2010, now NYAS has carried out this work independently but it has not been properly discussed or considered outside of passionate professionals with an inward view of the situation. The President of the Family Court Division, Sir James Munby, has now published guidance to implement these proposals without exploring the true and damaging effects this could have on children and young people, and all to allow more transparency, and to prove to the public that they have nothing to hide.

I have voiced my concerns over the redaction of information which may be leaked by the media, to which Sir James replied that anyone breaching rules would face a charge of contempt of court [a maximum of two years imprisonment]. Now this is all well and good sanctions being in place but the power to redact this information is far beyond that of the courts; information can be on foreign servers which would require intergovernmental cooperation, it could be disseminated onto other websites, people can save and screenshot information and there is no way in which newspapers can be recalled. Look at my previous post on the power of redaction and consider WikiLeaks and alike.

Although two years imprisonment may be a deterrent information may still be wrongfully disseminated, especially with the media having proposed access to court documents, which can have a lasting and damaging repercussions on a persons future. Regardless of the law it is expensive, upsetting and timely to take a case to court for a breach of privacy, wrongful dissemination or discrimination; it is not only employment which may be affected by these potentially damaging reports but also future relationships with many people admitting to Googling potential partners and friends.

The courts excuse for this greater access is for greater transparency, and yet so far they have negated educating the general public on the information already at hand with sites such as BAILII publishing anonymised cases on a daily basis to which the public [and by proxy the media] have full unfettered access. In this way cases are still able to provide privacy without much of a threat of jigsaw identification or private matters being disseminated beyond what is necessary to provide a fair case.

If we are to give the media full unfettered access we should consider cases such as McKennitt v Ash [2008] EWCA Civ 1714 where a singers friend published discussions in a book which were thought to have been in confidence. It was held that some of the information was disseminated due to the fact that it was thought to have been in confidence and therefore there was a breach of Article 8 [right to respect for family and private life], there is no provision in this article to allow the information to be disseminated via the media, the same is true of the majority of cases which would pass through the Family Courts if the media were permitted greater access. There may be a fear of releasing information to the courts in case it is wider publicised.

In the case of breakdown of relationships there is also X v Persons Unknown [2006] EWCA Civ 2738 where an injunction was sought to stop comment being passed on the state of X’s marriage without actually knowing who would pass this comment. Now this case sought the idea of a contra mundum injunction, [a worldwide injunction,] this is something which would be impossible to enforce but there is the potential for similar injunctions to be sought before a case takes place to ensure the privacy which we currently have come to expect from court proceedings, without which, as I have just said, information may be withheld from the courts, or cases entirely, for fear of publication.

Regardless of the courts idealism it is necessary to consider the knock on effect of dissemination for those seeking judicial intervention. In the case of Re Stedman* [2009] EWHC 935 (Fam) the parents disseminated the information to the papers about a 12 and 13 year old who had a child, a DNA test was sought which revealed that the father was actually a 15 year old. This lead to the mother being shunned in the local community, the original young person finding out that they had been bringing up a child which was not his and the father wanted a relationship with the child. As you can imagine this was a difficult situation having devastating repercussions on the involved parties mental health and well being; the media made things even worse by making their private matters public.

I also have concerns over information the media may acquire outside of the courts. Now I am not going to go into the News of the World and their abuse of technology or Nick Cleggs abhorrent idealism on not prosecuting the media for breaking the law in relation to acquiring stories even with situations such as the outrage resulting from Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked as I have mentioned that in the past, but information is freely available on individuals which may be personal and intimate without them realising which will lead to identification and could be published without permission, just see the video below for a demonstration.

I have outlined some concerns above and in previous posts but now it is your turn to get involved with me and NYAS. We have set up a petition urging the government to deliver on their promises of 2010 to hold a public parliamentary debate on the proposed access of the media to the Family Courts, in total we need at least 100,000 signatures for this to be considered so please sign using the link below:

https://www.change.org/p/president-of-the-family-court-division-please-don-t-put-children-and-young-people-at-risk-to-protect-the-courts

 “They are bound to be harmed by immediate publicity, both because it would undermine the family as a whole and because the playground is a cruel place where bullies feed on personal discomfort and embarrassment.”

Lord Justice Ward in ETK v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2011] EWCA Civ 439

*East Sussex County Council, Penelope Stedman, Steve Stedman, Nicola Patten, Denis Patten, News Group Newspapers Limited, Channel Four, Tyler Barker, Maisie Stedman, Chantelle Stedman, Alfie Patten (by their respective guardians)

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