The Mail Reveals THE TRUTH…Well one version of it anyways

Thanks Adam Wagner for pointing out the “shocking revelations” in the Mail today (It’s the social workers who are racist, say Slovak parents in UKIP fostering scandal: The Mail reveals the truth behind Thought Police furore – and it’s more shocking than it seemed), concerning the UKIP foster care row. I was planning to have a quiet sit down before court today, but now I’ve seen this I feel compelled to dash out a little rant before I go, otherwise I’ll rock up to court all “Grrrr” and “ppppffft”, which is never good.

This is not “THE TRUTH” about the slovakian children fostering row : it’s the parents’ account of it. No doubt it is the truth in their eyes, and in the eyes of John Hemming MP (quel surprise that his mugshot and helpful quote features in the article). But it ISN’T “the truth”. And it’s not fair and balanced reporting.

Others have commented about how the Local Authority are no doubt constrained by the law (Dr Julie Doughty here for example), by their obligations to the children, and probably by court orders from revealing information about the case in order to rebalance the story as it appears to the public.

In this article it is reported that the father of the children has been told “he faces jail if he talks to the press”. To lawyers dealing with care proceedings this indicates that the Father has probably received legal advice or a warning from the judge (or both) about this, and that specific injunctions may be in place.

So why are The Daily Mail still publishing this stuff? If there is an injunction in place it runs counter to the court’s view of what is in the best interests of the children, and it places the parents at risk of criticism or punishment. It is arguable that some of the detail published in this article amounts to the publication of “information relating to the proceedings” and is contrary to s12 Administration of Justice Act 1960 without more, and it is arguable that there is a significant risk of jigsaw identification of these children by their school peers and members of the community, which is in breach of s97(2) Children Act 1989 (criminal offence).

In the week after Leveson was published how is this responsible reporting? One can see from the comments on the article the kind of frenzy that this sort of highly emotive reporting is likely to whip up. It does not help inform the public.

I would like to think that when the press come to think about the “robust self regulation” that they all say they are willing to impose upon themselves, they will give some serious thought to the appropriate approach to the reporting of stories concerning children who are the subject of court proceedings. I don’t think it is right or practical to argue for a clampdown – for less information to be in the public domain. The freedom of the press is important and these stories, whatever I think of the quality of the reporting ARE important.

BUT

(that’s a big but you see) I do think that the identities of children should be better protected and that the press should be obligated or incentivised – and before that permitted – to report a balanced picture when they do report. At the moment the courts are like King Canute, and the existing rules are flouted by the press, parents and campaigners, whilst public bodies are constrained by them. This creates a warped public perception of family proceedings and publishing a judgment on BAILII where it sits in splendid isolation is simply a wholly ineffective way of redressing the balance.

Here’s what I think might be better : It should be good practice to provide full neutral citations of cases where there is a published judgment, and for online articles a direct link to BAILII judgments (there isn’t one in this instance but they are often easy to identify). And it would be good practice to seek a statement from the Local Authority (or both parents in private law disputes) before publication. For this to work though the courts would need to be far better at permitting the Local Authority to disclose information and this would probably need some statutory tinkering (Children Schools and Families Act 2010 Mark 2). If there were a general relaxation of the reporting restrictions to enable anonymised reporting as default, it would be good practice for a child’s guardian and the Local Authority to be put on notice before any story is published so that injunctive relief can be sought if the specifics of the case demand.

So lets start with linking to BAILII judgments where available, and using neutral citations. Or perhaps that’s too close for comfort where the press are probably reporting in breach of the rules on privacy? As long as a sensational story of injustice and secrecy is not identifiable it is difficult for the courts, for aggrieved parties or for those trying to protect the children’s privacy to challenge. And difficult for more responsible journalists to challenge through more balanced reporting.

Off to court now…not holding my breath.

21 thoughts on “The Mail Reveals THE TRUTH…Well one version of it anyways

  1. Russell Armstrong

    And this is a classic tale of why the COurts should not be “all” secretive.
    I agree it is sensible to try and protect the children with keeping thier identities private,

    BUT

    (and that is a big but)

    If a story has a catalogue of errors attatched to its history and decisions are being made than run counter to the best interest of the children and it is down to just one or two individuals within social services who make those decisions, then where are the checks and balances without public scrutiny or even relative ease of “appeal”
    You may state that that is what appeal process is for, well I say baloney.
    An appeal appeals against a point of law of when the Judge is in error not when his professioonal ADVISORS (such as social services) are in error, or can you poiny me to a path whereby this couple could “appeal” what they percieve is the problem in a sensible way.
    How can one make social services become accountable, that is the problem with a secret court system.
    Unless I am mistaken
    Your responce to this would make interesting reading
    I await your considered further thoughts
    One final thing, no one, I say no one can make an informed decision unless they have unfettered access to all the primary and original documents that lead to the decision in the first place, so any reporting is purely based upon limited and “sound bite” details
    Just like the court system its trial by sound bites itsnt it?
    Russ

    • If these children are involved in care proceedings, which it appears they are, the court has responsibility to scrutinise AND APPROVE the care plan and the parents are able to challenge the making of an interim care order, from which there is a right of appeal. However, there are limitations on the courts control of the implementation of an interim care order, so the right of appeal only takes one so far. The more effective protection is that the matter would be returned to court urgently to enable advocates and the judge to understand what is going on and why. In addition, the parents have a right to complain through the Local Authority complaints process, which is backed by the Local Government Ombudsman system. Or in appropriate circumstances the parents may be able to judicially review the Local Authority (but that’s a pretty tough test).
      So in answer to your question there are a range of ways in which social workers can be held accountable and none of them are hampered by the privacy of the court system. I’m not sure how the publicity surrounding this case will have helped the children or indeed will have helped to secure a different outcome.

      I agree that there are limitations on how in depth reporting can be without sight of all the papers in a case, but there has to be some protection of the privacy of children and indeed adults. To allow reporters unfettered access to all the case papers would be unmanageable and very risky. That is not to say that reporters attending court should not be able to make a reasoned application in individual cases for specific documents where they had been following a case closely in court, and wanted to be able to do the case justice in a way that was not possible without some managed disclosure.

      I also think that courts must get better at publishing case summaries or statements of approved facts for publication or press releases – as the Supreme Court do. There is no reason why this couldn’t become much more of a routine piece of work, although thought would need to be given to how that could be made workable where facts and descriptions are hotly disputed.

  2. This piece is no more imbalanced than, say, any piece of Liz Trinder-inspired social science research. Why highlight one imbalance in more skeptical fashion than the other?

    • I have already published something about the recent shared parenting research (although not yet the full piece). I’m certainly not criticising one thing in isolation. The fact that other things can also be criticised for imbalance doesn’t make my observation about this type of journalism any less valid. It’s a false dichotomy.

  3. There has never, so far as I know, been a successful prosecution of a newspaper under s.97, and the Mail has been involved in some of these cases, so they know they can breach the law with impunity.

    There is no evidence either that a child has been harmed by publicity or that a child has been protected from theoretical harm by anonymity, and there is little respect outside the industry for these laws which protect professionals and not children.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the Mail has sometimes exposed miscarriages of justice in the family courts and has been proved correct despite judicial censure. If a case does not qualify under the strict and limited rules for appeal the press is probably the only route for exposing injustice.

    • I think you are probably right about the use of s97 and about the lack of respect for the laws that do exist. I don’t agree that they don’t serve a valid purpose in protecting children. There are judgments which demonstrate the risks posed to children by wholly unregulated coverage of family cases, so whilst I think the law needs reforming I do think there needs to be some mechanism of control / protection. Courts are increasingly willing to name professionals in judgments, although it still doesn’t happen very often.

      Do you have particular miscarriages in mind, when you say the Mail has exposed them? I’m not sure which you are referring to.

  4. 1. The LGO service is a complete waste of time, reporting a social worker to the HPC would be much more effective. The HPC has the power to strike off for life. You are also assuming that anyone has actually told the family in question that this complaints procedure exists, which in my experience as a LA lawyer is highly unlikely to put it mildly. The amount of information which is ‘accidentally’ [much clearing of throat at this point] withheld would cause uproar if the public was really well-informed – and knew how to ask the right questions in an FoI request.

    2. The Slovak Government has made repeated allegations of racism against social workers in the UK, and they are not the only country to do so. So far, HMG has utterly failed to respond to or investigate these complaints. The article says this has now been debated at Council of Europe level, which seems to me to be a major embarrassment to this country.

    3. JR is prohibitively expensive, you need to have at least £10k in the bank before you can even begin. An impossible amount for a Slovak family of Roma origins. Plus you need to find a solicitor and barrister willing to act against a local authority in family law-related proceedings. Parents and extended families who have found themselves on the wrong end of a social services investigation complain bitterly, and with some justice, that they cannot find lawyers to properly and rigorously represent them because of the financial power that LAs wield in terms of instructing lawyers.

    • Gladiatrix,

      HPC also a good idea. All care plans state there is an LA complaints procedure but I accept that there are all kinds of reasons why parents don’t or can’t pursue those complaints. FOI requests won’t produce information about individual cases so I’m a bit confused about what you mean there.

      I’m aware that the Slovak Govt has expressed disquiet about how the English / Welsh family courts deal with care cases, but don’t have any information on the detail.

      JR is expensive, but if there is a good case legal aid should be available. Families involved in care proceedings will already have lawyers and they will be able to advise about potential JR and secure the funding if the merits are there.

      I appreciate that none of these routes is easy, but the question I was answering was what rights of redress parents had other than appeal, and there are some.

  5. Interesting ideas Lucy but it doesn’t seem likely there’d be a judgment yet regarding these children – ?

    I’d recommend this as an insightful comment – might leave you calmer than the Mail

    http://notsobigsociety.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/the-rotherham-ukip-fostering-row-further-details-emerge/

  6. It is in the interests of the public to know the extent to which this family was savagely treated by social workers and the 20 police officers who terrorized it. The damage done to the children is unforgivable.

    Far worse laws are broken when asinine laws that were only ever put in place to protect authorities are not breached.

    It is to the credit of this newspaper to report on such a subject, and all the more so when journalism has become so policed to the extent that it might as well not exist.

    • However,
      It may well be in the interests of the public to know where families are savagely treated, but in truth none of us know whether there has been anything other than a necessary but removal of children – I’m not making any judgment call about whether things were done justifiably or sensitively – we simply have too little information. So what concerns me is that with such partial information people are very ready to make judgment calls condemning social services and police. We don’t really know why these children were removed or whether it was warranted.

  7. RE: “I’m aware that the Slovak Govt has expressed disquiet about how the English / Welsh family courts deal with care cases, but don’t have any information on the detail.”

    Here are some details:

    Slovakian Ministry of Justice posted on its site
    http://www.justice.gov.sk/Stranky/aktualitadetail.aspx?announcementID=1631
    a statement accusing the British government of adoption (not taking into care – adoption) of Slovak children without good reasons. I don’t know Slovakian language but with the help of google translate you can pretty much understand the point.

    About a month later the UK embassy in Bratislava issued this statement:
    http://ukinslovakia.fco.gov.uk/en/news/?view=News&id=815073782
    “British government reacts to information published in Slovak media

    We strongly rebut the allegations against the social services in the UK made by the Slovak media. Social services in the UK are among the best-regulated in the world”, etc.

    If you read it attentively, you can notice that it does not contain a refutation of the allegations, made both the Slovakian ministry of justice and the media, that some Slovak children were ADOPTED.

  8. russell armstrong

    As I said earlier
    “One final thing, no one, I say no one can make an informed decision unless they have unfettered access to all the primary and original documents that lead to the decision in the first place, so any reporting is purely based upon limited and “sound bite” details
    Just like the court system its trial by sound bites itsnt it?”
    The whole point about the secret family courts is that the authorities can at any time invoke the secrecy clause and pull the plug on the debate if it doesn’t like the way it’s going
    The problem with the press is that they are just as bad, it’s journalism by sensationalisation.
    Quoting “friends of the family have said the father has said………” Just make me laugh, is this “trial” reporting by hearsay?
    Now lets remove secrecy and role play to see what happens
    “Slovak parents have child removed for justifiable/unjustifiable reasons?” Newspaper has uncovered worrying decision making process and call for an examination or review of case. The review found that the process was sound and reasonable and the decision was the correct/incorrect one
    The evidence given to the tribunal was/was not credible and properly corroborated etc….
    Reporters whilst having access to the process are reminded they can report on the technical aspects of the case and must report facts not what they believe to be facts
    Now this type of process whilst fair would cripple the flow and operation of the process but whilst the wielders of power and process have lost the faith of the electorate what else can we do to restore faith?
    A final thought, has anyone not thought of the irony that a couple who were able to foster some children for a family that was not being “British enough” and not following “British values” we’re then accused of not being able to provide for the cultural and ethnical heritage of the children?
    Is this double standards or what?
    Or in all actuality because someone is making wrong decisions for the wrong reasons they are out of congruence and cannot defend their position without making it worse for themselves
    Like a liar getting caught out in a lie having to lie some more only to get caught out in that lie
    As I said out of congruence
    Russ

    • Russ,
      Not sure I understand your comment but that may be me not you…Incidentally, there doesn’t seem to me to be much evidence that the reporting is based upon actual attendance at court hearings, rather it appears to be based upon reports from the parents themselves.
      Lucy

  9. Okay, if you say that we don’t have all the information, then this makes it considerably worse, because it implies that the social services in the region have lied to the media about the reasons for their actions.

    • I don’t think it does imply that social services have been lying to the media – social services are probably constrained from reporting much that they might want to report in order to set the record straight because it falls under the provisions of s97(2) CA 1989 or s12 AJA 1960 or under a specific injunctive order.

  10. Familoo,

    I am deeply disappointed.

    The dispute was between UKIP and two UKIP members who were foster parents, (there being a by-election going on in Rotherham at the time) and Rotherham council over the removal of eastern European foster children, because UKIp members were held to be unsuitable.

    I was amazed it became headline news.

    UKIP did very well in their result on the publicity.

    However there is a second problem.

    A disturbingly too high number of Eastern European emigrant workers’ children are taken into Care. Rather than return them to their home countries, as the court process grinds on they are put up for Forced Adoption.

    This produces anger in the countries concerned as they consider the children their nationals.

    This is seen in the recent broohaha over Slovak children, with demonstrations outside our embassy and attacks by the Slovak media on the British government and Slovaks with children preparing to flee Britain., and the British courts, with supreme arrogance issuing an injunction on the foreign Slovak media.

  11. Well, that makes a lot of sense. Being constrained from being honest so that you can be dishonest with the same effect.

    It doesn’t help to try and dream up some missing link here. If there was such an injunction in place, then the media would have been told that.

    What you are implying is that they were fed a lie instead.

    No wonder nobody has faith in family law when we are told that perjury had to replace the truth so as to deceive the public. Bonkers.

  12. You can’t “obligate” the press to print both sides of a story in this or any other context. End of.

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