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Friday, 19 May 2017

High Court ban on journalists naming woman in child protection case criticised

Written by Brian Farmer

A former Liberal Democrat MP has raised concern after a High Court judge barred journalists from identifying a woman who has been remanded in custody as a result of social workers raising safety concerns about her three-year-old daughter.

Mrs Justice Parker, who is based in the Family Division of the High Court in London, said she was imposing the identity ban in a bid to protect the little girl.

She said the woman's name and age should not be reported because publication might create an information jigsaw which could lead to the youngster being identified.

John Hemming (pictured), who campaigns for improvements in the family justice system, says the case is troubling.

Mrs Justice Parker had been told that the youngster was at the centre of family court proceedings and might be taken into council care.

Council social services bosses said the girl had disappeared while proceedings were on-going and raised safety concerns.

They suggested that her mother might be in breach of a court order - although they have not asked for the woman to be jailed for being in contempt of court.

Mrs Justice Parker analysed the case at a public hearing in the Royal Court of Justice complex in London late on Thursday.

The woman's name featured on a list of cases and Mrs Justice Parker took steps to ensure that journalists were aware of the hearing.

The woman had been arrested early on Thursday on the order of a judge and held in a cell at the Royal Courts of Justice pending her court appearance.

Mrs Justice Parker said she would reconsider the case on Friday and remanded the woman in custody overnight.

She said she thought that the woman, who was escorted to and from court through public areas of the Royal Courts of Justice complex in handcuffs, could be a "flight risk".

Judicial heads have twice in recent years laid down rules relating to procedures judges must follow when considering applications to commit people to prison for contempt, in a bid to ensure no-one is jailed in secret.

In March 2015 Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice and the most senior judge in England and Wales, said ''open justice'' was a ''fundamental principle''.

He said the general rule was that committal hearings were staged in public, orders were made in public, judgments were given in public and people were named.

Mr Hemming said Mrs Justice Parker had not been dealing with a contempt of court application.

"The bottom line is that people should never be jailed in secret and the public must know what judges do in their name," he said.

"Senior judges have laid down rules governing hearings where people are found to be in contempt and given jail terms.

"This wasn't a contempt hearing so those rules wouldn't seem to apply.

"And I understand that the judge has a child's welfare uppermost in her mind.

"But this is a troubling situation.

"A woman has been jailed for a night at a public hearing by a High Court judge in London without being convicted of an offence and journalists can't tell anyone who she is.

"Something isn't right.

"This raises big human rights issues.

"The right to free speech, the right to liberty."

He added: "I think senior judges need to look carefully at these kind hearings and draw up rules for how they can be reported and what restrictions can and can't be imposed."

Mrs Justice Parker said social services bosses at Barking and Dagenham Council had welfare responsibility for the little girl and had begun litigation.

Lawyers representing council bosses, and a barrister representing the woman, had argued her identity should not be reported.

They had disagreed about whether she should be remanded in custody overnight in circumstances where she had not been found to be in contempt or convicted of any wrongdoing.

Council lawyers said she was a flight risk and should be remanded in custody.

Barrister Seema Kansal, who represented the woman, said she should be released and suggested remanding her in custody in such circumstances might be an infringement of her right to liberty.

Mrs Justice Parker said she was satisfied she had the power to remand the woman in custody overnight and said she had concluded such a move was justified.

She told lawyers: "The question of deprivation of liberty and punishment in civil court proceedings is always very difficult."

The woman had told the judge her father had taken the little girl to his home in New York City.

She said family members were afraid the little girl would go into council care.

Mrs Justice Parker questioned whether the woman, who also has links to Jamaica and Canada, was telling the truth.

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