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PA Media Group v London Borough of Haringey & Others [2020] EWHC 1282 (Fam)

Mr Justice Hayden conducted a remote hearing in care proceedings, making a number of significant findings against a Local Authority, that should be in in the public domain.

During a substantive hearing in care proceedings, Mr Justice Hayden made a number of significant findings against a Local Authority, and noted that such findings should be in in the public domain through publication of the judgment and press involvement. As the proceedings had been conducted remotely, the press had not been notified, and therefore were unaware of the findings of the court.

The court initially heard arguments regarding the issue of publication and particular identifying the Local Authority. The court concluded that "child B's vulnerability and the fragility of his situation ultimately 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." (paragraph 3).

The press was subsequently notified of the judgment, and took the opportunity afforded by the Judge to make representations and invited the court to revisit their decision regarding identification. The press sought to persuade the court that the public interest in the Local Authority being named outweighed the countervailing interests of the children whose identity may be detectable if the Local Authority were named.

Balancing exercise
In conducting a balancing exercise, the court at paragraph 6 of the judgment, made reference to a number of precedents and surmised that "the rights of a child are not to be regarded as "paramount" but the rights of the individual child, engaged in any application of this kind, are to be regarded as the "primary" consideration."

Local Authority history
The position initially asserted on behalf of the Local Authority was that their failings in this case were an isolated matter and were not indicative of a wider systemic failure. However, the disclosure of the published 2018 Ofsted report by the press, demonstrated otherwise and heavily criticised the entire Disabled Children's Team within the Local Authority. Throughout the substantive proceedings, the court and Guardian had voiced concerns that the Local Authority were failing to address the serious Child Protection issues which were central to the case – this criticism was echoed in the findings of the Ofsted report from 2 years prior. 

In light of this, the court held that "this present case could not be seen as an isolated example of strikingly poor practice but [was] reflective of a much broader and deeper malaise within Haringey's Children with Disabilities Team."

The court acknowledged that where publication is sought, as an exception to the code, relating to information about a child, the identified public interest has to be greater than if the contemplated article concerned an adult. Given the grave and repeated failings of the Local Authority, this further lent itself to the argument that it was in the public interest for the Local Authority to be identified and properly scrutinized in light of its lamentable history.

Risk of harm to the children.
In this case, it was submitted on behalf of the press at paragraph 17, that there is a link between "jigsaw identification" and the likelihood of harm to the children. It was described thusly "… in the real world, the chances of people putting together an identity jigsaw are small and the chances of someone putting together that jigsaw and causing harm, smaller still."

Further, it was submitted – and accepted by the court – that very few members of the public would seek out and read the judgment, and would simply rely on the information in the media. In light of this, the public would be unlikely to be alerted to key pieces of information which would complete the jigsaw of identification, thus lowering the risk of harm to the children.

It is also notable that the Father in the case supported the identification of the Local Authority. He considered that public interest in scrutiny should prevail and any potential distressed caused to the children were not only overstated, but could be properly managed if they were to arise.

In court therefore overturned its previous decision and concluded at paragraph 32 that:

"the public interest in naming this Local Authority must prevail against the potential but not inevitable identification of the children and the potential but not inevitable emotional distress that Child B, in particular, may be caused. The Editors' Code of Practice affords these children continuing protection, as do my orders preventing publication of their identity. In addition, they have the important support of a father and a mother (notwithstanding my findings against her) who are sensitive to their children's needs and personalities".

Summary by Mavis Amonoo-Acquah, barrister, Harcourt Chambers

Read the full judgment of PA Media Group v London Borough of Haringey & Others [2020] EWHC 1282 (Fam) on BAILII