Transparency in the Family Courts

This is a post about the case of Newman v Southampton City Council & Ors [2020] EWHC 2103 (Fam) (05 August 2020. The judgment is very long which is an indication that something important was happening.

Melanie Newman, a journalist wanted to see documents in care proceedings which had ended in October 2018.

The child, born in 2012, had been removed from her mother’s care in 2015 and in 2016 a court ordered that the child be adopted. The mother appealed and succeeded. This is a very rare thing for a parent to do. It cost her about £20,000 and the local authority was not ordered to pay any costs as their decision to apply for a placement order was ‘in line with all professional advice’

If the mother hadn’t appealed, it was likely the relationship with her child would have been severed, certainly throughout her childhood. The Court of Appeal said the matter should be reheard. More assessments were carried out; the local authority changed its plan to rehabilitation and the child went back to her mother.

Melanie Newman wanted to know what was driving an apparent trend for this area to have a unusually high percentage of cases which resulted in orders for adoption. She knew that her application to see the documents was not an application to publish anything about them – that would need a further application. She was interested to investigate how it could happen that a Judge could make an order that a little girl should be adopted, only to have that judgment overturned because of its ‘significant’ gaps and the slimness of the evidence.

The court described ‘the essence’ of Ms Newman’s application in this way at para 118 of the judgment:

The essence of the application is a request by Ms Newman for the court’s permission to immerse herself in the private detail of this family’s domestic affairs (for these purposes with M at its centre) in a search to uncover material which may assist in exposing to public debate at least one of the questions she has formulated through her counsel: did this local authority act lawfully in commencing care proceedings in respect of this child ? 

But she did not succeed in gaining access to anything other than a small selection of limited and redacted documents; permission to appeal was refused.

I discuss below why this happened and why I think it was the right decision.

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