The story of how social workers illegally had a new-born boy removed from his mother’s care by hospital staff – which made front page news this week – only came to light because a Press Association reporter happened to be sitting in the Administrative court where the case was heard.
In a judgment handed down by Mr Justice Munby he has paid tribute to court reporter John Aston – and pointed out that had the case been heard in the Family Court it may never have come to light.
The issue of the removal of the baby was raised by lawyers for the mother, who may be known only as G, at the start of an application for judicial review in connection with plans drawn up by Nottingham City Council social workers.
Mr Justice Munby, dealing with the case at a hearing in open court in the Administrative Court on January 30, ordered that the infant should be immediately returned to his mother. The child was later made subject to an interim care order.
Mr Justice Munby handed down a written judgment on the case on February 4, explaining how the case came to be heard in public – because it was in the Administrative Court rather than the Family Court.
He said: “It so happened that the Press Association reporter was in court. I do not know why he was there. It is not my business to inquire.The Administrative Court, like most of the Queen’s courts, is open to the public. Anyone is free to enter, watch and listen.
“The Press Association reporter will be well-known to all who practise or sit in the Royal Courts of Justice though few I suspect will know his name. He has sat in our courts for many years. He epitomises the court reporter of whom Sir Alfred Denning wrote: ‘He says nothing but writes a lot. He notes all that goes on and makes a fair and accurate report of it. He supplies it for use either in the national press or in the local press according to the public interest it commands. He is, I verily believe, the watchdog of justice’.
“Sir Alfred added: ‘If he is to do his work properly and effectively we must hold fast to the principle that every case must be heard and determined in open court. It must not take place behind locked doors’.”
The judge said: “As one would have expected, the story that went out over the Press Association wire was fair, balanced and accurate. It caught the attention of the media, producing the front page story in at least one national newspaper the following morning.
“In the context of current debates about access to and reporting of proceedings in family courts, it is salutary to think about what would have happened if the application, instead of being made to the Administrative Court, and therefore in public, had been made to the Family Division urgent applications judge, and therefore in private.
“Would the media ever have learnt what was going on? And if they had, what then? Perhaps much time would have been taken up dealing with an application by the media that the court should sit in public.
“This is all speculation. But it gives food for thought.”