Last autumn we covered the so-called ‘muslim foster carer’ case, over a number of blog posts (you can find those posts here).

This week, just as we’d given up hope of ever finding out what happened to the little girl at the heart of the case, the judgment is out. Or, to be precise – Tower Hamlets have provided selected journalists with a copy of an authorised summary of the judgment (We know at least one journalist who has been hammering on the door of every judge he can think of to try and get this flipping summary. Our own email to the judicial press office went unanswered).

This is progress, but the manner of publication has disadvantages.

Firstly, as it is a summary this document leaves out some details – we don’t know what those are, but as summaries go this one seems pretty detailed. There are some obvious areas where the wording has been very carefully constructed to avoid some detail that might identify the family, but we aren’t going to go into detail about those because it looks to us as if those unmentioned details are contained in some news reports. Somewhat unsatisfactorily, we are unable to be clear about whether or not we can mention these because despite a number of requests to the press office and lawyers involved in the case we were never served with the reporting restriction order which sets out the parameters of what is permissible (although we were sent a draft order at one point which purported to bind the hands of ‘the media’ along with a suggestion that we should treat ourselves as covered – very unsatisfactory).

Secondly, this is a document drawn up by the local authority and (we understand) approved by the other parties and the judge as an accurate summary that is fit for publication. And yet, nowhere in the document is the case number or BAILII reference cited so that the document can be linked back to the case or to other published documents as part of a set.

Thirdly, because this is the local authority’s document rather than an edited version of the judgment that the judge has taken ownership of, the judgment is not (so far) published on either the BAILII or Judiciary websites, where the earlier case management order is also available. Again this makes linking up documents difficult.

Fourthly, Tower Hamlets haven’t even bothered to publish the document on their own website (although their various press statements about the case remain).

This has been in effect a briefing document issued to those members of the press kicking up a stink. Given our expressed interest in the case it would have been nice to have been sent this document (Tower Hamlets have our details because we had attempted as a courtesy to canvas with the parties whether they objected to our attending the final hearing but we were stonewalled). It has not been made available to the public or the by the court or the local authority for the purposes of transparency, rather it has been done slowly, grudgingly, by the local authority – with the effect that the utility of it has faded along with the public’s recollection of the case.

It is highly likely that following a hearing lasting 10 days resulting in a reserved judgment some months later that the judgment would either have been produced in writing or reduced to writing via a transcript. Quite how or why it can have taken a further 7 months to issue a summary is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, because we think that this document should be available in full to the public we are publishing it here so it can be found alongside links to all the other material about the case. Here it is.

OK OK – But what does it actually say?

Well done for sticking with us this far. We are going to tell you what’s in it – although not in any detail, because it is reasonably easy to read and not terribly long. We are just going to draw out some key features :

  • ok, we’ll skip to the end – the child stays with her granny, and they go back to the country of origin.
  • the summary gives considerably more detail of the circumstances leading to the child’s removal into foster care and the mother’s chronic and extensive difficulties with alcohol (more than we were expecting given the terms of the reporting restriction draft we were given earlier on, and a surprising amount given the observations of the guardian, below)
  • the summary gives more detail about the cultural and religious background / practices of the family and the child’s early upbringing – the muslim grandmother had been a main carer for the child for the majority of her life
  • the final hearing was apparently hotly contested. Whilst the mother didn’t criticise the grandmother’s care of the child, and agreed with her continuing to care for the child if she couldn’t go back to live with her mother – her main case was that the child should be returned because she had dealt with her alcohol issues. she was represented by a QC and a junior barrister so there must have been some complexity to the issues.

The summary records :

The court indicated that it had been informed by the Child’s Guardian that when the child was moved from her second foster placement to be placed in the care of the maternal grandmother …that…this had to be undertaken with police presence and assistance, because of the numbers of press in attendance at the foster carer’s address. The child did not have the opportunity to have a proper goodbye with her carers. It would have been entirely in her best interests to do so. If all that is correct, and the court had no reason to conclude otherwise, the court could not see how such circumstances could be regarded as being in the child’s best interests.

and also :

As observed by the Child’s Guardian, most unfortunately and through no fault or choice of her own, details of the child’s private life are in the public domain and will continue to exist online well into the future.

We don’t know which members of the press attended at the foster carer’s home, but it is shocking that they would have considered this appropriate conduct. It is surprising that a complaint appears not to have been made to the press regulator IPSO about this (although other complaints about the press coverage of this case were made, and at least one was upheld we don’t think any relates to doorstepping).

We are also not entirely sure what the reference to details of the child’s private life being in the public domain refers to – very obviously anonymised details are in the public domain through the case management order, this summary and the press coverage. However, it seems likely that this is intended to refer to something above and beyond this, perhaps material that identifies the child. If such material exists it has not come to our attention.

Given the level of public interest and the amount of detail contained in the judgment we do wonder whether it would have been better for the court simply to have published a modified version of its own judgment on the BAILII / judiciary website. That certainly would be suggested by the 2014 publications guidance, under which this falls – it is difficult to see that there can have been a ‘compelling reason’ not to publish a version of the judgment in circumstances where this level of information was suitable for publication. It would have been preferable if the court had either undertaken the task or proactively case managed the finalisation of a document for publication shortly after the judgment was itself delivered.

Other reading : Professor Brian Cathcart on Inforrm blog : “Muslim fostering”: Times journalism utterly discredited.

Feature pic : secret by Melanie Innis on Flickr (creative commons – thanks)