It’s now just over two weeks since I arrived, a little shaky with excitement and nerves, at the Court of Appeal to argue that a reporting restriction order (RRO) had been made unlawfully last October in a Portsmouth family court.
Just before the hearing, in the coffee shop opposite the Royal Courts of Justice there was a lot of hugging of people I knew and also of people I’d never met… there’s quite a giddiness when you’re indignantly, furiously and yet also hopefully, about to challenge an order made by a deputy high court judge in front of the most senior family judge in the land.
If you follow me, @svphillimore or @georgejulian on Twitter, you’ll know that the appeal was successful: there’s already been a lot of national and online coverage of the hearing itself, and reporting by the BBC’s Sanchia Berg of the earlier successful appeal of an adoption placement order by a very courageous mother, which the media had been banned from reporting under the RRO.
Before I wade into what happened on the day, there are some very important thank yous due.
I am more grateful than I can say to every single person who donated to the two crowdfunders. I didn’t have a spare couple of grand lying around to pay the extraordinarily high fees required simply to seek permission to appeal (£528 ) and then for the appeal hearing itself (£1199). I also had to cough up for a transcript of the Portsmouth hearing at which the RRO was wrongly made, without which Lord Justice Peter Jackson would not have been able to assess whether my application to appeal stood a realistic chance of success. That was another £120. There were considerable postage costs on thick bundles of paper that had to be served on the various parties at various stages; my printer kept running out of ink; I also covered travel expenses for my unbelievably fabulous pro bono legal team to get to the appeal, as I really didn’t see why they should actually pay to volunteer their time and expertise. So to everyone who so generously contributed to the crowdfunding effort, please know that this appeal couldn’t have got off the ground without you.
The commitment of barristers Paul Bowen QC and Sarah Phillimore to the case was extraordinary. Quite apart from the endless hours of preparation they put in, Paul interrupted a half-term family holiday to travel hundreds of miles to London to represent me on the day of the hearing, and Sarah gave up a day when she could have been working to attend. It was thrilling, and very educational indeed during the preparation of our submissions, to see top class legal minds at work on issues of principle and practice. I’ve learned such a lot and feel very lucky indeed to have had this opportunity.
Many thanks also to Parvais Jabbar and Kate Bolton at solicitors Simons Muirhead & Burton, who eased the huge burden of administrating the appeal which was, as my Twitter feed probably demonstrated, driving me almost literally round the bend.
It became apparent to me early on that the mother was unable to afford any more money on legal fees – it had already cost her £60,000 to get her daughter back. This child arguably should never have been in care in the first place, and certainly not placed for adoption on what the appeal court said was “the slimmest of evidence”. So a huge shout must go to Emily Boardman, partner at Boardman Hawkins & Osborne solicitors, and barrister Lawrence Messling, who represented the mother in this case for free, made sure she felt safe, and that her voice was heard. And also, most importantly, thank you to the mother herself, for bravely agreeing that we could report what had happened to her family over three extremely distressing years.
Finally, to George Julian who travelled from Devon to London, unpaid, to live tweet the hearing, and to everyone who came to watch in the public gallery on 15 February – I appreciate enormously you taking the time out of your day to support the appeal.
Grand doesn’t begin to describe the surroundings as I walked through the Royal Courts of Justice and into court 33. Entering court, I felt as though I had landed in an 18th century oil painting: glowing wood panelling lined the courtroom, a high arched window spilled light onto the bewigged heads of the barristers, and blue velvet drapes formed the backdrop to Sir Andrew McFarlane and Lady Justice King, who emerged into court to take their seats on somewhat ordinary office-style chairs (the only not-grand things about the court – I’m used to Bristol where there is smart scarlet leather!) Both judges wore funny little yellow neck-ties which oddly reminded me of the citron flash on the head of a goldcrest.
© Mark Hope via Flickr
For anyone who wants to follow the Twitter live stream in which George Julian explains all the main points covered by Paul Bowen QC, Lawrence Messling and the BBC’s barrister Adam Wolanski – the BBC applied to join the appeal at the hearing, and thus became co-appellants – please see the hashtag #RROAppeal.
I have applied for a transcript of the whole hearing, which I will post on here when I receive it for anyone who wants to read the blow-by-blow account.
In short, my team was arguing for the following:
1 – That the RRO imposed by HHJ Levey should be overturned, so that the media could report the important public interest elements of a case that had been published by the Court of Appeal the previous year. This related to a mother’s successful overturning of an adoption placement order, together with the final outcome – that Southampton council appeared to have recognised the weakness of its case for removal and adoption, and allowed the little girl to be reunited with her mother. But only after untold anguish, three years spent in foster care, and legal and other costs that would be utterly impossible for many families who find themselves in care proceedings: challenging the adoption placement order required this family to liquidate all their assets, empty their savings accounts and work incredibly hard to keep paying the bills.
It was important that we were able to report everything in the original Appeal Court judgment so that the full import of what had gone wrong could be appreciated: for instance, a new baby had been born. Had the adoption placement order for her older sister been left standing, the council would have been far likelier to have taken an interest in the newborn as well.
I argued that the Court of Appeal should say that the RRO had been “unlawful”. The two Lord Justices cavilled somewhat at this, and were only prepared to say that it was “wrong”. As Paul Bowen had pointed out in our submissions however, the Court of Appeal is only empowered to overturn orders that are unlawful, so I wonder if the fact they were only prepared to say it was “wrong” was a gloss put on things to soften the embarrassment to the original judge.
Prior to arriving in court, we had managed to secure agreement from the other parties to 95% of the new order we wished the Court of Appeal to make: however, it’s important to realise that a hearing was in fact needed, not only because an RRO is an order against “all the world” and cannot be dealt with “on paper” (ie, without a hearing) but also because I wanted to raise a number of other points that had been recognised by Lord Justice Peter Jackson when he made the order giving me permission to appeal.
2 – We argued that in future, any judge, when faced with an application to lift reporting restrictions, should be clear that the privacy which is the default setting for family courts is only the “starting point” for the balancing exercise which they must then undertake between Article 8 privacy rights and Article 10 freedom of expression rights.
A “starting point” is different from a “presumption” of privacy, which implies that any application to remove some degree of that privacy must first overcome a pre-existing hurdle.
3 – We said we were deeply worried about aspects of the President’s recent Practice Guidance on anonymisation of judgments. National media outlets have protested at the considerable extra restrictions on transparency and accountability that this guidance gives rise to. I have also been critical in my latest Family Law journal column. Paul Bowen pointed out that, for instance, in the Guidance, the President has directed that judges only identify a local authority where “naming the LA would carry with it no risk (my italics) of identifing the children….”
There can never be any guarantee of “no risk”, so the inevitable consequence of this, if judges follow it, is that local authorities will become immune from ever being identified – and where is state accountability then? How could local and regional media ever report on what their local authority is doing? How, for instance, could Herefordshire local media – or indeed national media – ever report the shitstorm that has clearly gone down in that local authority’s children’s services over many years, leading to big financial awards for human right breaches? They simply would never know about it.
The idea that such poor practice should be conveniently hidden in this way is shocking to me. It is chilling not only to journalism but also to democratic accountability more generally.
Importantly, it does nothing to protect children – quite the reverse. However well intentioned, if there is state-sanctioned blocking of scrutiny and accountability for government when it makes drastic intrusions into our lives – and makes terrible mistakes – then the decisions made for vulnerable children will become less robust, not more. And trust in the state will not only dissipate further than it already has – families will truly fear it, and regard those working in it with contempt.
Encouragingly, however, the President indicated during the hearing that he would look again at his Practice Guidance in case there had been some “infelicity” in certain aspects of the phrasing. I really hope that he does.
4 – We also said that we wanted clear instructions for judges, court staff and journalists as to how to approach requests for the lifting of reporting restrictions. I never again want to be in a court where neither the judge or barristers appear to have the remotest clue as to the lawful process that must be undertaken if restrictions on the human right of freedom of expression are to be imposed.
Lawyers must evidence rather than simply assert any concerns that publishing details will lead to risk that a child or family will be identified, and then evidence rather than simply assert that this will harm that child or family. As Lady Justice King indicated during our hearing, it is not enough in law to simply say the words “jigsaw ID” for a judge to slap on reporting restrictions.
The judge should then hear evidence from the media, if they wish to offer it – as it’s advisable they do – as to why it is in the public interest to report the details they seek to publish.
The judge should then use this evidence in deciding whether the risk to privacy is so great, and the harm that would arise so significant, that the weight of evidence that reporting is in the public interest – freedom of expression – can be legitimately overridden.
We put forward a series of suggestions as to how court staff and judges might enable the smooth running of such an application by the media, and I was incredibly heartened that the President took the need for this on completely on board. I have been told that he will issue draft guidance for consultation in March, and will welcome contributions from any journalist, legal blogger or other interested party. His hope is to issue the finalised Practice Guidance in June.
It’s not quite open justice – yet – but this new Guidance will hopefully ensure that judges, lawyers and court staff – who are, to be fair, very rarely faced with this sort of application – know what to do when such requests are made.
Applications to lift reporting restrictions are not an adjunct to the “real deal” of the case that’s being heard – the human right of freedom of expression is essential to the healthy functioning of the state, and all the more so when family courts operate effectively in secret.
Coverage of the day
While I was too high on adrenalin following the hearing to type a single word afterwards, Sarah Phillimore managed to be rather more grown up about it all and blogged that very night. Her post includes her very useful contemporaneous note of the hearing.
Lucy Reed, chair of The Transparency Project (of which I’m a member) also blogged that evening.
A report by Sanchia Berg of the mother’s case ran on the PM programme and 6 O’Clock news that Friday afternoon, as well as an article that went live on the BBC News website. The Guardian wrote an editorial on transparency which went online that day and ran in the paper on the Saturday. The Times and Press Gazette covered the appeal over the weekend.
A very helpful blog explaining more about the background to the case was posted by Emily Boardman a couple of days after the hearing, and George Julian also wrote a post with her reflections. Finally – I think! – the Family Law Bar Association is going to publish a compilation of my “Appeal update” tweets, which detail my wonderment and frustration at the sheer administrative slog and cost of bringing a challenge to an unlawful order.
The result we got only came after a huge effort by many, many people who contributed in whatever way they could, whether financially, in giving moral support and encouragement along the way, or in legal expertise and passion.
Everyone who helped did so because they felt it was important. This mother and daughter’s story was indisputably in the public interest to understand, but just as important is the idea that that when the state acts in private – effectively in secret – it must not be allowed do so without an absolutely rigorous adherence to the laws that protect the public’s right to know what is being done in its name.