This blog post originally appeared as the Transparency Project’s monthly column in Family Law for December 2019 at Family Law [2019] Fam Law 1476.

Case background

In September, I attended the hearing of the the Tafida Raqeeb case (Raqeeb (by her litigation friend) v Barts NHS Foundation Trust; Barts NHS Foundation Trust v Begum and others [2019] EWHC 2530 (Fam); Raqeeb (by her litigation friend) v Barts NHS Foundation Trust; Barts NHS Foundation Trust v Begum and others [2019] EWHC 2531 (Admin)) as a legal blogger on behalf of The Transparency Project. The purpose of the legal bloggers pilot under FPR PD 36J is to allow attendance at private family hearings. However, on this occasion, the case turned out to be in open court.

The case concerned the question of whether it would be in the best interests of a 5-year-old girl to have her life-sustaining medical treatment withdrawn. It also considered whether the medical team’s decision not to permit Tafida’s parents to take her to Italy for treatment was an infringement of her EU rights to free movement. The judgment was handed down at the beginning of October. It was held that it was in Tafida’s best interests to be transferred to Italy for continued treatment. Alongside this case was a social media fundraising and awareness campaign to raise money for Tafida’s continued treatment in Italy. This consisted of a JustGiving page and promotion through a range hashtags on social media such as #savetafida, which featured information and images about Tafida, as well as a range of opinions from social media users.

The importance of legal blogging in this case

The Tafida Raqeeb case comes after the high profile cases of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans. Although it is important to appreciate each case on its own facts, these cases have some similarities in that they all concerned a disagreement between the treating medical team and the parents as to the best interests of the child. In each case, the parents sought treatment options abroad. These earlier cases had widespread media attention and were accompanied by a strong social media debate. Much misinformation was spread during the time of these cases, partly due to the ease with which misinformed members for the public could post their views on social media, and the ease with which these posts could be shared or retweeted extensively. In light of this, I saw my role as a legal blogger in the Tafida Raqeeb case as a vitally important one. I was determined to ensure that an accurate version of information was put in the public domain. I hoped that, through my blogs posts for The Transparency Project, I could create an accurate narrative of information and events; one that would contain more detail than the mainstream media and one that could be referred to should there be misinformation spreading in other forums.

My legal blogging experience

Although the case was held in open court, being there as a legal blogger meant that I had the advantage of sitting on the press bench. This was my first experience as a legal blogger and of attending court for a journalistic purpose. My day job as a law academic means that I rarely visit court. When I arrived at court number 39 of the High Court, the legal clerks knew about The Transparency Project and the legal bloggers pilot, making my court experience much simpler than it might have been, as I knew I had come to the right place and that I had permission to be there in a legal blogging capacity. However, the legal clerks are busy and have little time to engage with anyone who is not party to the case. Therefore, my first task was to find out from others (mainly the other reporters) what to expect. Chatting with other reporters gave me a useful insight into how long the case was scheduled to last, timings of each day and how to get hold of documents such as skeleton arguments. Some reporters watch cases regularly and know the legal clerks well. Most members of the press bench were from well-known media channels including the BBC, The Times, The Guardian and The Sun. There were also individuals writing on behalf of smaller campaign organisations.

The differences between legal blogging and mainstream media reporting

Although everyone on the press bench was there to report the case, I was there with a different purpose to the others. My aim was to report with greater detail about the law and to ensure that a responsible and accurate account of the case was made and put into the public domain. A legal blogger has more freedom over how to report a case than a traditional mainstream media reporter. The mainstream media are under pressure to produce news items quickly and thus it is not always possible for their journalists to have the time or the word count to include a great level of detail. I was in the unique position on the press bench of not being restricted by the agenda of a media organisation, time-constraints or word count. Neither was I restricted by the number of blog posts I could publish.

Whilst the mainstream media outputs that I saw were reported responsibly, they were limited in detail. They featured a number of key one-liners and quotes strung together, leaving gaps in public knowledge. There is always a risk that such gaps might be filled in by personal opinion rather than fact. In contrast, a legal blogger will report in more depth and detail and help to ensure that the public has access to all of the relevant facts. Access to all the facts can make the public less likely to develop uninformed opinions.

Neutralising the case narrative

In a case such as Tafida’s, the parents are in a strong position to make their views known to the public through the media and social media. Thus, it is easy for their version of events to become the most dominant and known narrative. This can leave the voice of professionals, including lawyers and medical professionals, as relatively very quiet or even lost. Legal blogging can help to neutralise the public narrative by ensuring that all parties and professionals feature equally in a report.

Legal blogging can tell you more than the judgment

In a published judgment, the facts of the case are presented in the words of the judge. Summaries of counsels’ arguments will also be based on the judge’s selection of the most important points. I wrote five blog posts on the hearing, describing what was discussed each day. The sixth blog post, co-written with Dr Peta Coulson-Smith, was a summary of the judgment and some of its implications. These provide an alternative version of the conduct and outcome of the proceedings and can be read alongside the judgment, to give greater insight.

Reasons why family lawyers should be pleased if a legal blogger attends their case

If you are wondering what it might mean if a legal blogger turns up in your hearing, be reassured that this is likely to be a good thing. Although bound by any statutory or judicial reporting restrictions, just as a journalist is, a legal blogger can report in an unrestricted and responsible way and provide far more detail than a mainstream media snapshot. A legal blogger can write from different angle to most journalists because of their legal knowledge and lack of commercial pressures. They can provide more detail of the facts of the case, the arguments made by counsel and any other information that might not be mentioned in the mainstream media or the judgments.

Emma Nottingham

Senior Lecturer in law, University of Winchester and member of The Transparency Project

See Emma’s posts on the case here.

Feature pic : RCJ courtesy of Juuso Herranen on flickr – thanks!