Family court lifts restrictions

A Times journalist is to publish an interview with a man convicted in a controversial child abduction case after the country’s most senior family court judge made a highly unusual ruling to allow publication of certain details of ongoing care proceedings.

The long-running case had led to a mother to fleeing abroad with her son and the conviction of her new husband, the child’s stepfather, for abduction.

Sir Mark Potter, president of the High Court Family Division, approved the naming of Medway Council as the authority involved in the case, along with a summary of facts from previous court rulings.

He made the decision following an application by Times Newspapers for a declaration of how far it could go in reporting the case, saying that publication of the fuller story would ‘enable the public to form its own view of whether the actions of the council or the decisions of the court to date have been fairly characterised”.

He took the step in the wake of reports in several national newspapers acclaiming the pair as ‘heroes’and preventing Medway Council from ‘stealing’their child, and fighting the ‘secret justice’meted out by the courts in family cases.

The mother and child, known only as S, remain at large after leaving the country for France, where the mother gave birth to a second child by the child’s stepfather.

Name restrictions

The stepfather, who cannot be named in order to avoid identification of the child and was referred to as M, returned to Britain and was sentenced to 16 months in prison in November 2007.

Articles published by Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and The Times criticised M’s sentence as excessive and charged that his case raised questions about the secrecy of the family court system.

Times columnist Camilla Cavendish, whose series of articles on the case spurred the application and were mentioned in the ruling (pictured right), welcomed the judge’s decision.

‘What this enables me to do is to pursue this story much more and hopefully use the story to show why the system just has to be changed.”

The decision will allow Cavendish to conduct an interview with M, who has since been released from prison, to tell part of his story.

‘I’ve written about this twice but in very guarded terms because the reporting restrictions were so onerous,’Cavendish told Press Gazette.

‘Almost anybody who had any knowledge of the case at all was gagged,’she said.

‘He is completely right to say that a lot of families in private proceedings with intimate family details don’t want those to come out. Our point isn’t that we want to remove confidentiality – we don’t need to name the individuals in order for the public to see the evidence.”

Challenging myths

‘Journalists are utterly distrusted by the judiciary and by most politicians,’she said. ‘Actually, I think they are wrong, because you can put sanctions in place. If you look at rape cases, those reporting restrictions are always honoured.”

The government is planning to publish a response to a consultation on access to family courts in the autumn.

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