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A Local Authority v M, F, A&B [2020] EWHC 1162 (Fam)

Case concerning whether to name a Local Authority and social workers in public law proceedings. Hayden J did not think he had ever had to criticise a Local Authority to the extent found necessary in this case. Ultimately the balance was tipped in favour of prioritising the children’s family life and granting anonymity.

Following a contested hearing in public law proceedings, Hayden J handed down a judgment in which the court made trenchant criticisms of the Local Authority's conduct of the case and of two social workers in particular. Hayden J did not think he had ever had to criticise a Local Authority to the extent found necessary in this case.

In the draft judgment initially circulated to the parties Hayden J named the Local Authority and the social workers. The court did not intend that the published judgment should identify the subject children, parents or the Schedule 1 sex offender who had brought so much trouble to this family, as to do so would have been manifestly corrosive of the children's privacy. Both of the children were, in different ways, vulnerable.

The case first came before the court in the context of the parent's determination to ensure the family home could be extensively adapted so that child A, who has a raft of disabilities, could live at home. The mother harnessed crowd funding, encouraged local medical coverage, child A was named, and his images were broadcast in a variety of media.

The Local Authority and the Guardian submitted that if the court were to name the Local Authority and/or the social workers it would, by means of 'jigsaw identification', quickly identify the subject children.

Hayden J set out the relevant law, and the parallel analysis in which the starting point is presumptive parity, requiring an intense focus on the comparative importance of the competing rights, rather than a mechanical exercise decided on the basis of rival generalities.

The substantive judgment had revealed the conclusion that the social work team within this Local Authority disregarded fundamental principles of safeguarding and child protection. The nature and extent of the failings, as well as their persistence, could only give real cause for concern. There was an undoubted public interest in the Local Authority being named in order that they might be subject to the kind of public scrutiny that many would regard as necessary.

The Guardian had been entirely unsparing in her professional criticisms and fully and unreservedly accepted the strength of the legitimate public interest in the Local Authority being named. She however came to the conclusion that the interests of the subject children tipped the balance in favour of preserving their privacy.

Hayden J concluded the potential for jigsaw identification can sometimes be too loosely asserted and the risk overstated. In this case, such was the level of information in the public domain including A's full name and images in national newspapers and various social media platforms that the court was satisfied were the Local Authority to be named, the family and both children would be identified with ease. Many of the families who live locally to the mother and who have children with disabilities supported the fund-raising campaign. The social workers would be known to these families. There was a relatively tight network of families caring for children with disabilities.

The welfare solution in the case was, of necessity, second best. Child A wanted nothing more than to return to live permanently at his family home. The outcome was that A now faced the prospect of a lifetime of institutional care, interspersed with occasional weekend and holiday visits to his father's home. Child B was extremely close to his brother and fervently wanted his brother to come home. In light of the court's findings about the mother's deception regarding her ongoing contact with a Schedule 1 offender, it was necessary for B to move to live with his father. The social isolation required by the current pandemic had left B living in unsatisfactory circumstances with no outside space and limited contact to either his brother or mother.

The court considered the Guardian and the Local Authority were right to emphasise the vulnerability and the present fragility of B's situation. Ultimately the court came to the conclusion that this tipped the balance in favour of prioritising the children's family life and emotional well-being over the legitimate public interest in identifying the Local Authority and the relevant professionals.

It was unfortunate that the parties did not inform the press about the application. Should the press wish to make representations to dislodge the anonymity the court had granted, they were at liberty to make an application and the court proposed the judgment be sent directly to the Press Office in addition to being published on Bailii.

Summary by Victoria Flowers, barrister, Harcourt Chambers

Read the full judgment of A Local Authority v M, F, A&B [2020] EWHC 1162 (Fam) on BAILII