“LEGAL AID FURY Woman fed boy, 3, poison while plotting to take him to see ISIS jihadi father in Syria but was given public cash in battle to keep any alleged terror connections secret: Taxpayer-funded legal aid went on lawyers representing her as she tried to stop Scotland Yard gaining access to her files”  lead the Sun on Sunday headline 

“Woman accused of poisoning child ‘used legal aid in attempt to keep terror links secret” followed the Daily Telegraph also on Sunday, repeating the factual errors made by the Sun.

The Daily Mail followed on Monday parroting the same mistakes: “British ISIS jihadi’s ‘wife’ who poisoned a three-year-old boy while plotting to take him to Syria was given taxpayer-funded legal aid to stop Scotland Yard gaining access to her files”

What WAS correct about these headlines/ stories?

• Macdonald J did give a judgment on 6 October 2016 explaining a decision made on 5 September 2016 in the High Court.
• It did involve a woman who had been found by previously by Macdonald J to have:
“Made her child ill on a number of occasions by giving him a drug and contaminating his intravenous cannula”; and been in touch with the child’s father, aware of his involvement in terror related activity in Syria and his plan for her and the child to travel to Syria to join him and live there. (Para 14 Judgment 6 October 2016. Neither the Judgment explaining the fact finding determination dated 21 June nor that initially permitting the local authority to disclose documents to the Police and CPS only, appear to have been published.)
• The case did involve disclosure of documents about her, in that it was about what conditions, if any, should be attached to an order permitting the police to share the judgment from the fact-finding hearing and the Mother’s statement (making some admissions ahead of that hearing), to the security service (MI5);
• She did get legal aid. (All parents get automatic legal aid for applications within care proceedings. The proceedings would next decide whether her child could safely return home and what should happen to him if not, including whether he should be adopted);

What was incorrect or misleading?

“LEGAL AID FURY….Taxpayer-funded legal aid went on lawyers representing her as she tried to stop Scotland Yard gaining access to her files” (The Sun)

“Taxpayer-funded lawyers argued that Scotland Yard should not gain access to woman’s files“ ; “Used her legal aid in an attempt to keep her terror links secret” (Telegraph)

“Given taxpayer-funded legal aid to stop Scotland Yard gaining access to her files” (Daily Mail):

• The application literally wasn’t about disclosure of information “to Scotland Yard” or the police or prosecutors as is variously suggested throughout the Sun, Telegraph and Daily Mail reports! It was about whether the Metropolitan Police (headquarters at Scotland Yard), who already had the documents (via the local authority) with permission from the family court, could now pass them on to the Security Services (or MI5).
• It wasn’t about “her files” either [whatever files the journalists envisaged- whether court file or social services files or even police files]. It was solely about 2 specified documents – the judgment and her statement of evidence for the fact finding hearing that lead to the judgment;
• It wasn’t really even about whether they should be disclosed (to the security services). That was already agreed (or not actively opposed) by anyone by the time of the hearing. The hearing reported in the judgment was solely about what conditions, if any, should be attached, which wasn’t agreed. (The key condition sought was a requirement that the security services should not forward the documents on to anyone outside the security services – whether to a foreign security service or an unregulated individual, etc, without future court permission. Macdonald J decided the permission did need that condition and should not be the blanket permission sought by the Police on behalf of the Security Services);
• The mother didn’t even bring the application. The Police (publicly funded) brought the application. Correctly – since judicial permission was required as a matter of law. Agreement between the parties simply would not have sufficed. The police would either have had to settle for not sharing what might prove to be important intelligence with the secret service; or gone ahead without the application, acting unlawfully in contempt of court.
• All the parties except the Police (the local authority, child’s guardian, grandmother and mother asked the Judge to place a condition on the permission not to pass it on beyond the security service but those representing the maternal grandmother not the mother, drove the arguments with others merely adopting their submissions. (Para 43 and 54 Judgment)

“ British ISIS jihadi’s ‘wife’ who poisoned a three-year-old boy” (Daily Mail)

• The local authority had asked the Judge to find as a matter of fact that she deliberately poisoned her son. The Judge had not been able to conclude this on the evidence, even on the low 51% standard of proof operating in the civil family courts. (para 14 Judgment)

Thanks to David Burrows for drawing our attention to the reports. For more on some of the law underpinning aspects of this case see “Disclosure and confidentiality: a tale of two cases in Family Law.