This is a post about a case that is only indirectly a family court type case, because of an agreement* made between the parents, on separating in 2009, to try to protect their son from learning about the historic past in a way that would be detrimental to the child. The newly-reported case is about a highly talented pianist, James Rhodes, who was prevented from publishing his autobiography until the Supreme Court ruled in his favour last week.  James Rhodes’ ex-wife had claimed that the publication would be distressing to their son, now aged 12.

The extracts of the book quoted in the Supreme Court judgment and alluded to in an earlier newspaper article by Rhodes, are indeed highly distressing to any reader. His suffering is unimaginable and one can only feel grief and anger on his behalf. Apparently the book focuses on the way his love of music has helped him cope – and probably saved his life. His history is now related in a number of newspaper articles including this Guardian interview. Rhodes has done a lot of work over the years to promote musical education and help children use music to tackle their psychological problems. He seems to be doing all he can to promote the well-being of other people struggling with ghastly demons and post-trauma. So, it seems inconceivable that he would want to cause distress to his own son.

However, in OPO v MLA in the Court of Appeal, James Rhodes’ ex-wife was granted an injunction stopping the book, based on an obscure 19th century case in tort law [law about personal injuries] called Wilkinson v Downton (of which you can now read much detail in the Supreme Court judgment). Wilkinson v Downton was a case where a claim was successful on the basis of intentionally causing mental distress.  Although at the Court of Appeal stage, Rhodes’ identity was still conclealed, the resurrection of this forgotten caselaw caused a flurry of academic disapproval, or ‘shock and disbelief’ (as explained on the Inforrm website).

Defenders of freedom of expression spoke up in favour of MLA (as Rhodes was then called in the court reports) and comment on the subsequent ‘humane’ Supreme Court judgment has been positive. Being such a talented and successful public figure, Rhodes emerging from court last week attracted positive press reports. (Although it’s slightly depressing that he is demoted by some papers as ‘pianist friend of Benedict Cumberbatch’).

So, overall, the availability of the court reports in this case has been helpful in improving public understanding about the law and about the experience of childhood trauma. Being from a privileged background was no protection for James Rhodes when a small boy, and his attacker was never tried. (Although Lord Neuberger explictly states in his judgment that the public interest element in the book played no part in the Supreme Court decison.)  One can only agree with Rhodes’ hope that his publication might help other survivors speak up, be believed, and get help. And that his son is supported when he learns about his father’s experiences.

*The order regarding the post-divorce arrangements for James Rhodes’ son appears to have been made in another jurisdiction, where he lives with his mother.