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Judge in care proceedings warns of media reports based on incomplete knowledge of the evidence

HHJ Bellamy permits reporting of judgment to correct ‘factual errors and omissions’

His Honour Judge Bellamy, sitting as a High Court judge, has permitted the reporting of his judgment in Re L (Media Reporting) in order to highlight the danger of journalists relying on the accounts of parties to proceedings rather than attending the court and hearing the presented evidence.

The case in question involved a fact finding hearing relating to a little boy, L, who is now 14 months old. His parents are referred to in the judgment as GT (the mother) and BR (the father). In March 2010, when he was just six weeks old, L was admitted to hospital. He was found to have sustained a number of fractures, including that of the humerus. He also had a number of marks to his face, left arm and right hand. The local authority, Coventry City Council, and the police were informed.  The parents were arrested and handcuffed . Both were subsequently released on bail and the mother was informed that no action was to be taken against her.

The parents agreed to L being accommodated under s.20 Children Act 1989. The local authority agreed to L being cared for by his maternal grandmother, NT ('the grandmother'). With the agreement of both parents though without the knowledge or agreement of the local authority, NT took L to Ireland. The local authority began care proceedings, unaware that L had been taken to Ireland. L was finally returned to England in August. In the interim L was made a ward of court and the judge ordered that the grandmother must return L to England forthwith and that upon his return he be placed in the care of the local authority.

At the fact finding hearing HHJ Bellamy found the mother responsible for L's humeral fracture and exonerated the father.

The case has attracted media attention and articles have appeared in The Irish Times and the Daily Telegraph. These articles were, the mother had told the judge, at least partially based on information given by her.

In his judgment HHJ Bellamy said that those 'articles contain significant factual errors and omissions.'

After itemising what the judge considered to be errors, he concluded:

'All of this underlines the dangers inherent in journalists relying on partisan and invariably tendentious reporting by family members and their supporters rather than being present in court to hear the evidence which the court itself hears.'

In his evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee on 1st March 2011, when dealing with the issue of media reporting of family cases, the President of the Family Division, Sir Nicholas Wall, made the point that:

'What tends to happen, and this is a matter which we do have to address…is that one side will give a tendentious view of a case to the press. The press will then publish that case as though it was the gospel truth, and the judgment which may be given will not be corrected in the press because by then the story will be old…'

Judge Bellamy in the present case said that '[w]hat has happened in this case is a classic example of that very point.'

The judge also commented on the handcuffing of the parents:

'In the light of [police] guidance and the evidence available concerning the parents' demeanour at the time of the rest, I find it difficult to understand why it was considered reasonable, necessary and proportionate for these parents to be handcuffed in the hospital and escorted through the hospital to the two waiting police cars.'