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Booker Can Continue Reporting

March 3, 2013 permalink

A British court has lifted an injunction that prevented Christopher Booker from reporting on a case known as MvM. Similar injunctions might have halted all of his family law reporting. Several articles are enclosed.



Open up family court hearings, says senior judge

A senior judge has made an important ruling in favour of transparency in the family courts.

Christopher Booker
Mr Booker, inset, has written a series of articles highlighting the most controversial aspects of the family courts
Photo: Christopher Jones for the Telegraph/Alamy

Mr Justice Mostyn lifted a ban on Christopher Booker, The Sunday Telegraph columnist, reporting on a case involving the future of children who are living with their mother.

The injunction barred Mr Booker from making any mention of the dispute, known as MvM and the London Borough of Sutton.

However, last week the High Court heard how the order prevented the reporting of proceedings that were “clearly in the public interest”.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Mostyn said he was lifting the injunction “because the emphasis should be on transparency” in the courts.

He added: “Mr Booker is perfectly entitled to be as rude as he wants about anybody he wants. That is what freedom of speech is about.”

The court had heard from Gavin Millar QC, for The Sunday Telegraph, that the injunction breached Mr Booker’s right to freedom of speech and that reporting on the case was in the public interest.

He also argued that reforms brought in to open up the family courts had been ineffective, because although the press were now able to attend hearings, what they were allowed to report was limited.

They were also, in many cases, unable to see court documents, which were key to understanding proceedings.

Mr Millar said: “We could have a discussion about how those reforms have worked and how the press have been helped by them. There’s a general feeling that they haven’t been helped that greatly. Very often they can’t report what they want to report.”

Mr Justice Mostyn agreed, adding: “They [the journalists] can’t see the documents so it’s complete Chinese to them.”

The injunction was imposed after Mr Booker wrote a series of articles about the case, which involved the divorce of the parents of young children.

The mother was placed under an order that prevented her from moving from the address where she and her children live, near the father’s home, to enable him to keep in touch with his children.

It meant she was twice unable to hold down well-paid jobs in the finance industry, because the jobs were too far away for her to commute to.

Before another hearing, the barrister chosen to represent the mother decided that she was suffering from a psychological condition and said the mother was not “mentally competent” to instruct her.

As a result, the barrister said she was not willing to put forward the arguments the mother wished to be put forward in court. She asked to represent herself but it was only after a psychologist gave evidence that she was mentally competent that she was allowed to do so.

Mr Millar argued that journalists should be able to shed light on such legal practices.

He said: “The core of the article was about an episode in the life of a litigant which is certainly an issue of public interest: that the law could operate in that way, that the lawyers representing you could bring into question your mental capacity.”

Mr Booker has written a series of articles highlighting the most controversial aspects of the family courts.

He called the injunction “far too sweeping in its implications” and said the decision to lift it was “a victory for common sense and the rule of law”.

He added: “Had this ruling been upheld, it could have greatly extended the rules of secrecy which govern cases involving social workers, children and the courts, and severely curtailed even such limited freedom as the press still has to report such cases.”

Julia Varley, a solicitor for David Price Solicitors and Advocates, which represented The Sunday Telegraph, said: “It is important that the public are able to receive information about what goes on in the family courts and that the media are able to report on such cases, which are often held behind closed doors.

“This decision is a further step in favour of transparency in the family courts.”

Mr Justice Mostyn’s lifting of the injunction is the latest in a series of rulings intended to open up the courts.

Family courts in particular have often been accused of a lack of transparency because cases involving children are not open to the public. The courts argue that this is to protect the identity of the children, but critics have highlighted the difficulties of reporting on such cases.

In 2008, Jack Straw, the then justice secretary, promised to shed light on family courts and brought in new rules allowing journalists to attend.

But judges ruled proceedings would still be held in private and journalists would therefore be unable to report anything on the case unless the court gave specific consent.

Lord Justice Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, has called for greater transparency, calling for “radical and comprehensive reform” of the family court system.

Source: Telegraph (UK)

A victory for common sense

A judge was prepared to listen to arguments, but the battle over secret courts is not over

Secret courts are a threat to our freedom
Secret courts are a threat to our freedom
Photo: ALAMY

Last week, 702 lawyers, including 38 QCs, signed a letter calling on the Government to drop its Justice and Security Bill, allowing judges to sit in secret on cases involving national security. According to the lawyers, allowing judges to hold their hearings behind closed doors would be “dangerous”, “contrary to the rule of law”, would “erode the core principles of our civil justice system” and would “fatally undermine” the right to a fair trial and open justice. What the lawyers did not say, however, was that we already have a devastating confirmation of all these points in the workings of our family courts, in too many of those tens of thousands of cases every year involving the removal of children from their parents by council social workers.

In reporting on many such cases, I have found nothing more shocking about the shadowy underworld of our family courts than to discover, precisely because they are allowed to hide themselves away behind a wall of secrecy, how easily the most basic principles of British justice can be turned upside down. Responsible parents can find themselves being treated like criminals, assumed to be guilty without having the chance to prove their innocence. Judges are too often happy to accept the controversial opinions of supposed “experts”, that cannot be challenged; or to take on trust highly dubious hearsay evidence which is not put to any of the tests required in a criminal court.

Faced with an array of lawyers on the other side, parents too often feel that the entire system is horribly rigged against them – and none of this can be directly reported, except at risk of the draconian penalties that, at a judge’s whim, can be imposed for contempt of court.

Last Wednesday I sat in the High Court listening to Gavin Millar QC, an eminent specialist in this field, asking a judge to lift an order he imposed on me in December that would have forbidden me ever to refer again to a case I have commented on here several times. So strict was this order imposed by Mr Justice Mostyn at the behest of Sutton council, the local authority, that I could have been sent to prison for even the slightest mention of the case. So far-reaching was the judgment accompanying his order that it would have extended the secrecy rules governing such cases far beyond even the strict limits that the law currently allows, making it virtually impossible for newspapers to report critically on child-protection proceedings at all.

Although everything I have written about this case, for instance, was careful to observe the existing law, as by never identifying any of the parties by name, it was argued that even the bare facts I was able to give about this disturbing story would have enabled anyone slightly acquainted with a member of the family to know at once who I was writing about. This in itself was not just implausible, but would undermine even the rule of anonymity which customarily governs the reporting of such cases.

For an hour and a half, Mr Millar argued, with a parade of legal precedents, how the order was in breach of several articles of the Human Rights Act. So masterly was his presentation of relevant case law that he increasingly won Mostyn’s attention and respect, to the point where it was finally agreed that, on the basis of my commitment that I would report on the case “accurately”, the order could be lifted. In making the order, the judge had accepted Sutton’s claim that my reports on the case had been “totally inaccurate”. But since this had been merely asserted without the support of any evidence, we had not needed to challenge it, even though we would have been very ready to do so.

As a victory for common sense and the rule of law, the lifting of this order is of much wider significance than just my own case. An argument commonly levelled against my comments on such cases has been that I only listen to “one side of the story”. But, as I have noted before, I always try to understand both sides of such stories, with no help whatever from the local authorities, who not only invariably refuse to answer my questions, but also have several times sought injunctions forbidding me from making any mention of a case.

This was the first occasion on which a judge was persuaded to agree to such an order, and the fact that he was prepared to listen to the arguments and to lift it was a salutary victory for the freedom of the press.

This was certainly welcome as far as it went. But the battle to lift the veils of secrecy that shroud the “secret courts” we already have is very far from over, and behind those veils far too many cruel abuses of justice will continue to flourish unreported. At least, however, thanks to the forensic skills of Mr Millar, Wednesday was a good day for British justice.

Source: Telegraph (UK)

Below in chronological order are some earlier articles by Mr Booker on the MvM case.

A mother who deserves to make history

As the number of children seized by social workers soars to a record level of more than 225 a week, David Cameron merely urges that we must speed up the process whereby only 4 percent of those taken are being adopted – oblivious to the possibility that many should never be removed in the first place.

One story, as astonishing as any I have reported, centres on the devoted mother of two small sons, who held a well-paid job with a leading bank, For two years she has been harried by social workers, even though they have not yet been able to remove her children, whom she has not harmed in any way, But in 2010 they persuaded a judge to impose a Prohibited Steps Order, forbidding her to move from the area where she lives, which is close to her ex-husband, the children’s father, diagnosed as a ''paranoid schizophrenic’’, who has a long record of violence.

Because she couldn’t move, she had to travel with her children for up to four hours a day, to put them in nursery care near her office, She could not accept the bank’s offer of a responsible new post 100 miles away. So difficult did the social workers make her work life, insisting that she take calls from them at work up to an hour long, and that she must return home at awkward times to allow the father to have ''contact’’, that the bank reluctantly had to terminate her contract. At Christmas she was only allowed to make a fleeting visit with the children to her family in Scotland on strict conditions laid down by the social workers as to who she could stay with, with contact details so they could check on her.

Being familiar with the law, she decided to apply for a High Court ruling that this order was in breach of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees respect for privacy and family life without needless interference by ''public bodies’’. This led recently to a Kafkesque day at the High Court, being shuttled between a judge, the administrative office and back again. Each told her that responsibility lay with the other. She was told that a court was not a ''public body’’ and her application must be made to the junior judge who had imposed the order. Only when she pointed out that a court is indeed a public body under the Act and that such an application can only be heard by a full High Court judge, did she finally meet a senior lawyer willing to assist her. By now it was so late that she had to return last Thursday to be given help with making the applications – for a case which deserves to make legal history.

Source: Telegraph (UK)

Isn’t there a right to have your human rights case heard?

'Human rights' law seems to be applied differently for terrorists and mothers.

Abu Qatada
Abu Qatada, a 'grave risk' to national security, was released on bail by Mr Justice Mitting

What a dismal mess our politicians and judges continue to make over those famous “human rights”. Of all the bizarre judicial rulings this has produced, none have been more controversial than those over Abu Qatada, described as “Bin Laden’s right-hand man”. First the European Court of Human Rights overruled our own Supreme Court by finding that the British Government had no right to deport him back to Jordan. Then in February there was a further furore when Mr Justice Mitting ruled that, under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, guaranteeing respect for the right to enjoy family life, this terrorist could be sent home on bail from a top-security prison and allowed to escort his son to school.

Contrast this with the story of the mother who, as I reported on March 11, wished to appeal to the High Court against a judicial order that she believed was a clear breach of several of her rights, including that enshrined in Article 8. Having been harried for two years by social workers, in a case involving her two young children and a violent estranged husband diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, she was appealing against a Prohibited Steps Order, granted by a judge, which since 2010 has forbidden her to move from the address where she and her children live, near the father’s home.

By placing her under virtual house arrest, this constraint has twice made it impossible for her to hold down senior, well-paid jobs in the finance industry. Unable to earn a living, her freedoms to work and move about have been severely curtailed. Her right to enjoy family life without state interference has been all but destroyed. Since she has done nothing wrong and the social workers have found no reason for removing her children, she carefully drafted an appeal to the High Court, following the advice of court officials, to have the order lifted.

This document was given to the same Mr Justice Mitting. His response was simply to issue a written ruling that, on legal technicalities unconnected with the substance of her appeal, her case was “totally without merit”. Instead of appealing to him, he wrote, she should have sought permission to ask for a judicial review – even though, he went on, this would have been refused. She was accorded none of the helpful courtesies which court guidelines say should be shown to “litigants in person”. Furthermore, if she dared appeal against his ruling, she might well be made subject to a Civil Restraint Order, branding her as a vexatious litigant.

So here is a woman who believes that, under the law, her rights have been abused in a way most members of the public would find deeply shocking. She appeals directly to a High Court judge, as the law requires and just as she has been advised to do by court officials. But the judge does not respond in terms of human rights. He tells her that, because her case was incorrectly presented, it can be dismissed as “totally without merit”. It is not surprising that many of us find this new world of “human rights” law quite as bewildering as anything Alice came across in Wonderland.

Source: Telegraph (UK)

A legal miracle - then business as usual

A mother has been rescued from a court order that had cost her her job, and was about to take her home

A miracle has occurred in the family division of the High Court. I have reported several times recently on the bizarre plight of a mother of two young children who, since 2010, has been placed in an impossible position by a family court judge. This capable mother, who held a responsible job with one of our leading banks, had done no harm to anyone. Still the judge, at social workers’ urging, imposed on her a Prohibited Steps Order, forbidding her to move from the house in which she and her children live, close to her estranged husband. This was to enable him to keep in regular touch with his children.

Though they had no grounds for seeking a care order on her children, the social workers used the order to impose such restrictions on the mother’s movements that it became impossible for her to continue in her job. She then lost another job, for the same reason, and was fast running out of the means to pay the mortgage to keep a roof over her children’s heads. Eventually, as I reported, she tried to bring a claim before the High Court that the Prohibited Steps Order was in breach of her rights under the Human Rights Act. When she finally managed to get before a judge, her plea was contemptuously waved aside.

Last week, however, she was heard by another High Court judge, Mr Justice Charles, who immediately saw the point and lifted the order. In the nick of time, she is thus free to consider offers of well-paid work which until now she would have had to refuse. By showing such rare common sense, Mr Justice Charles might be commended as something of a shining exception in our family courts.

In the same week, however, he became the seventh judge to preside over another case, the murkiest of all those I have reported on in recent years. This involves a husband and wife who, on what has often seemed highly questionable evidence, have seen all their seven children taken into care. Coming late into this tragic and protracted story, Mr Justice Charles ruled that two of the children should be sent for adoption. As I say, in our family courts miraculous happy endings don’t come around too often.

Source: Telegraph (UK)

Mr Booker's most recent article on the MvM case is A barrister becomes the judge of her client's sanity.