Blow struck for open justice at High Court

Two parents who claim they are victims of a “miscarriage of justice”
after having three of their children were taken from them by their
local authority and put up for adoption and who now face moves to take
a fourth child away from them struck a major blow for open justice at
London’s High Court today.

A senior Family Division judge allowed
their application for the media to be permitted to cover court
proceedings tomorrow, which would normally be held behind closed doors,
in respect of the fourth child.

Moves are currently under way at
Government level to open more family courts to the media. Today though
Mr Justice Munby, who has given evidence to a Commons Select Committee
in respect of those moves, ruled that the case of the Webster family
from Norfolk should be open to the press.

In doing so he said :
“It is a fundamental and long established principle of our legal system
– and this principle is now underscored by Article 6 of the European
Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
– that justice is administered in public. Legal proceedings should be
conducted in public and should be fully and freely reported.”

The
moves to lift the earlier reporting restrictions on the case was taken
by the parents Nicola and Mark Webster, their child Brandon’s guardian,
the BBC, and newspaper publishers Associated Newspapers and Archant
Group.

Mr Justice Munby said the parents claimed they had been
“victims of a miscarriage of justice in previous care proceedings
relating to their three older children.”

Now he said they were
embroiled in care proceedings relating to their fourth child (Brandon)
and sought, with the assistance of the media to tell their story in
public.

“They wish the media to be allowed to attend forthcoming
hearings of the care proceedings. The question is whether they are
entitled to do so,” he said.

He continued : “The case raises
important questions of principle about the right of access to and
reporting of care proceedings in the Family Division and other family
courts.”

Turning to the facts of the case he said the parents
live in Norfolk and their three older children were subject of care
proceedings brought by Norfolk County Council. Full care orders had
been made freeing the children for adoption. They have subsequently
been adopted.

He went on : “The outcome – permanent loss of all
their three children – must have been devastating for both parents.
Even those of us who spend our professional lives in the family courts
can have, even with the assistance of the most vivid imagination and
superabundance of human empathy and fellow-feeling, but a dim awareness
of what the parents must have gone through and must, indeed still be
going through.

“As I understand it, the fundamental basis of the
care proceedings was an allegation that one or more of the children had
been physically abused by the parents. This is an allegation that they
have always denied.

“They assert that the children were wrongly
taken away form them on the basis of flawed and incomplete medical and
other evidence.

“A fracture suffered by one of the children, they
say, had an innocent explanation, for what is commonly referred to as
‘brittle bone disease, runs in the mother’s family.

“Put shortly,
the parents say that they and their three children were all the victims
of a miscarriage of justice. Their cause has been taken up by both the
print and the broadcast media – the BBC, the Times and the Mail on
Sunday amongst others. Responsible journalists have suggested that a
“terrible miscarriage of justice may have occurred.”

He said that
there had already been very considerable publicity about the case going
back to November last year before Brandon was born. The parents had
fled to Ireland before his birth but later returned upon which Norfolk
County Council started care proceedings.

In January a court order was made imposing reporting restrictions on the case.

However,
lifting that order today and imposing orders of his own which included
provisions for the hearing to now be attended by the media the judge
continued : “The applicants assert that this case raises important
points of high principle about open justice in the family courts and
the role of the media in exploring and exposing possible miscarriages
of justice.

“Understandably they put their case on the basis of
what they say is fundamental principle, principle which, they say,
entitles them to the relief they seek. I agree with the applicants that
high principle is indeed involved.”

He continued : “In a case
where the parents allege that they are the victims of a miscarriage of
justice, it is more than usually important that the truth – the full
truth – should out. If, as the parents allege, they have lost three
children and stand at risk of losing a fourth due to deficiencies in
the system, then there is a pressing need for the true facts to be
exposed.

“If on the other hand the parents are wrong, and the
system has performed conscientiously, competently and correctly, then
it is equally highly desirable that this should be known and publicised.

“Given
the publicity there has already been, the issue is in the public domain
already. It is, therefore, important for pubic confidence in the system
– public confidence in the court – that both the resolution of the
issue, and the way in which it has been resolved should be known.”

He
went on to rule that the right to attend the hearing should not be
restricted just to the media organisations involved in the application.

“If
the media are to be permitted access to the forthcoming hearing that
access cannot properly be confined to the particular organs of the
media who are before me,” he said.

“It is not for a judge to licence the media, preferring one over another."

 

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