The headline and sub-header

“Three sisters whose parents didn’t give them names are taken into care”;  “Judge Sarah Lynch said the youngest girl – aged four months – had been registered just by her surname.”

This was the headline and sub-header used in the 4th January Mirror report on a published family court judgment from November 2016. They imply that the children may have been taken into care and adopted because their parents didn’t name them, which wasn’t the case. At the very least the headlines imply that the ‘non-naming’ was relevant to the family court decision reported, which also was not the case. They also imply that the parents registered them with surnames alone which isn’t true. The local authority registered them.

Section 1 of the Editors Code requires journalists to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information including headlines not supported by the text but there’s no suggestion a correction would be relevant here, not least because the Mirror corrected themselves a few lines in, acknowledging: “A judge said the fact the girls did not have names was not a key factor in the case”  in a caption to a photograph [our emphasis]. In truth it wasn’t even a factor in the decision. We know that individual journalists are not normally in control of the headings but it’s unhelpful, nevertheless, in a child protection system where many are only too ready to presume that ‘the secret family courts’ are up to their old tricks of removing children for no good reason.

Its hard to understand the rationale behind the Mirror’s focus on ‘not-naming’, given the case facts. Or the reason for oddly listing all the judges’ middle names in the final sentence of the Mirror report. Nor is there any information in the judgment (or the Mirror report) to shed light on why these parents declined to register the births of their children / officially name them (though we can think of plenty of possibilities).

What the case was actually about

This was a decision that a third baby should remain in care and be placed for adoption in conclusion of care and placement order proceedings.  Her older sisters had already been adopted and placed for adoption respectively. The sole reason was the decision of a former family court in 2014 (at a fact finding hearing the parents chose not to attend), that the father had, on a balance of probabilities, repeatedly sexually assaulted her elder half sibling (his step-child) by inappropriate touching. Since neither parent had ever accepted that this was true and the findings had not been appealed or set aside based on new evidence, the Judge determined there was no other realistic option for this baby but to be placed for adoption since her father still posed a risk of sexual (and thereby also emotional) harm to her, while her mother continued to be likely to fail to protect her. The father had later been acquitted of all criminal charges and the parents had been disengaged, or electing to self-represent, from shortly before the final hearing about the first of the three full siblings.

The Mirror don’t explain this or even link their readers to the judgment to find out for themselves at See here for a recent discussion at the Transparency Project on press generally not helping readers by providing a link to judgments, including an update about the constructive response we received from the Press Association (at the foot of the post).

Missed opportunities?

Alternative headlines that did reflect something the case really was about might have included (improved) versions of:

“Parents choosing to represent themselves rather than have a lawyer, lose a third child to adoption after making repeated doomed legal applications – with no one apparently telling them how to make the right application”

 The published judgment documents:

  • that the parents’ opposition was based on not accepting the original finding of sexual assault, particularly after the criminal acquittal
  • that the parents were self representing from the end of 2014 onwards, while making various legally and procedurally doomed applications to try to prevent the adoptions, including for permission to appeal against care and placement orders; permission to revoke placement orders; for an injunction under the Human Rights Act in the civil (non family) Court; and to appeal a case management decision in the care and placement order proceedings being determined here
  • that at no point did they actually apply for permission to appeal the (civil standard) determination of facts about the sexual assaults they didn’t accept, or to set it aside based on new evidence.

Yet conspicuously absent is any confirmation that any Judge enabled these litigants in person to make the only procedurally feasible legal application available to them, given their known position. We’re not in any way suggesting that an application for permission to appeal the findings or have them set aside based on new evidence (such as that from the criminal acquittal) would have succeeded, but it seems extraordinary if they weren’t assisted to make the right application, rather than just allowed to make a series of (costly) applications over a 2 year period, that any lawyer or judge would have known had zero chance of success in these circumstances.

Nor is it clear who they did take some ‘legal advice’ from that is mentioned at paragraph 15 of the judgment or the quality of that advice. We simply do not know whether for example, the advice was from a regulated, qualified, children panel lawyer or some other organisation, nor what that advice was or why.

Or “Judge orders adoption of third child because of sexual assault of older sibling, proved in the family court, despite father being acquitted of all criminal charges”

See Child Protection Resource here on why the family court makes life-changing decisions for children and families based on ‘facts’ established ‘on the balance of probabilities’ and some inherent difficulties with this. As well as the Transparency Project blog post we mentioned above on the different standards of proof here.

Or even: “Mother without lawyers fighting adoption decision handed crucial transcript of judgment on the day of final hearing”

The transcript of the crucial fact finding hearing judgment dated March 2014 opposed by the parents and apparently sought by the parents for some time, was only provided to the mother on the day of the final hearing, after Her Honour Judge Lynch refused to accept the court office suggestion that the recording had been lost. She seems to have intervened during the period leading up to a final hearing at which the mother opposed the placement order, in part based on the absence of this transcript. (Paras 26 & 29)

It will be interesting to see if that fact finding judgment is now published, since its transcription has brought it under the President’s Transparency Guidance on publication of judgments (The Guidance took effect from February 2014 and the judgment of HHJ Anderson was delivered in March 2014).