“Journalist tries to report on journalist trying to investigate” is perhaps not the catchiest phrase you’ll ever read. Frankly, I’ll admit that things are getting a bit meta when you have one freelance reporter taking the early train to London to ask a family court judge for permission to report on the efforts of another journalist to get sight of restricted papers in a flawed adoption case. But… bear with me.
Tomorrow, freelance journalist Melanie Newman will embark on a two-day contested hearing in front of Mrs Justice Roberts; she wants to be able to read the papers that were submitted by Southampton city council as evidence for a little girl to be adopted. A judge gave permission for the adoption to go ahead, but the girl’s mother, bravely and thanks to huge financial sacrifice by all her family, appealed. Very unusually, she was successful. The Court of Appeal described as “only the slimmest of evidence” the paperwork and oral testimony given to the court by the local authority in support of it’s case to remove the child from her family, forever – and, after a huge amount of trauma for everyone involved, the girl returned to live with her mother.
Being a dogged investigative journalist, Melanie wants to know what is in the papers, and is trying very hard to find out. I estimate she formally applied for sight of the court bundle – to see what this “slimmest of evidence comprises – ten months ago. The mother is in agreement that she should be able to see the documentation. The local authority and child’s Guardian are opposed. There have been several court hearings to date: the opposing parties have instructed counsel including Deirdre Fottrell, one of the country’s most eminent family law QCs to argue their case contesting Melanie’s application. Melanie herself is now, thankfully and incredibly generously, represented pro bono by barristers Anya Proops QC and Kate Temple-Mabe, and Mark Stephens of Howard Kennedy solicitors.
From my own experience of successfully appealing an unlawful reporting restriction order made to gag the media from reporting the outcome of that case, I know all too well the immense amounts of time and energy that Melanie – a freelance reporter, working on her own – will have put in to try to find out what on earth the local authority felt was adequate evidence to support an application to have a child adopted. Evidence that the Court of Appeal, remember, did not believe was remotely sufficient. Journalists are frequently criticised for not reporting family courts accurately: it’s important to underline the point that Melanie’s efforts to interrogate source documents are in the very best traditions of rigorous journalism. And what stands in her way is Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960– a 60 year old law that restricts anyone from knowing what goes on in closed family court proceedings, even when the state, in exerting its most draconian powers – to remove a child from its family, and extinguish the legal relationship between them – clearly made a terrible mistake.
Using the President of the Family Division’s recently published Guidance as to reporting in the family courts, I emailed the judge on 20 January this year to let her know – as a courtesy, there is no requirement to do this – that I would be attending the hearing tomorrow and Tuesday, and to explain that I would, at that hearing, be making an application to report the parties’ arguments both for and against Melanie having sight of the documentation. I also applied, via the email, to be able to see documentation in advance of the hearing. Eventually, though it was opposed (though not by Melanie), I gather from a short excerpt from an order that I was sent by the judge’s clerk that this was agreed, subject to anonymisation of the documentation.
So, to conclude: I’m on not-quite-the-most-crack-of-dawn train to London tomorrow to get the Royal Courts of Justice for 10am, then staying at my sister-in-law’s overnight, then back in court on Tuesday. I’ll make the best case I can to Mrs Justice Roberts that reporting Melanie’s efforts to investigate what went wrong in this adoption case is in the public interest, that in doing so I will not identify the family members (remember, there has been significant national coverage that successfully protected their anonymity), and that I should be able to let you know what arguments the state makes – at very significant public expense – to ensure a journalist cannot even read (not, at this stage, publish) the evidence the Court of Appeal said was insufficient for a judge to have ordered that a little girl should lose her relationship with her birth mother, and be placed for adoption.
Please support this reporting!
I am paying for my own travel to London tomorrow (rail fare £171.81) and am giving up two days of time to report on this case. This is not the kind of story that would be commissioned by the national media, but I feel it is important to show the efforts being made to try to hold the state to account as it exercises its powers in the family justice system. If you feel able to support my Patreon, which will help pay for me to make these applications to report on family court cases, I would be hugely grateful.
Frankly, it’s all getting a bit meta. I’ll try to explain.