An important judgment, Louise Tickle v the Council of the Borough of North Tyeside was published on BAILII last week. It has been reported on the UK Human Rights blog and on Inforrm. This was an application by journalist, Louise Tickle, for permission to publish material about a family who have been involved in care proceedings, heard together with another application by North Tyneside Council for reporting restrictions to be imposed. This is what the judge, Mr Justice Bodey, said about Louise:

Louise Tickle is an experienced freelance journalist whose Curriculum Vitae I have read. She has written a number of responsible articles, which again I have read, on various social issues, including for example to do with the family justice system.

You can read some of her most recent writing for the Guardian here and here.

The judge went on to explain that Louise:

… has what she describes as a rare opportunity to prepare an in depth report into the care system, running to some 5,000 words, for publication in a serious broadsheet newspaper. In the process of preparing the report she would like to analyse and speak about the Mother’s experiences with her various children in the care system.

The mother (called ‘G’ in the published judgment) supported Louise’s application. In other words, she wanted to her story to be published. The judge said about G:

… she and her children have … come into and through the care system on a number of occasions. It is that experience which she has shared on social media sites; in particular how she fought for her youngest child (a child who was removed at birth) and how she eventually succeeded in having that child live with her, as is currently the case and has been for some time. I have read some of her articles on the social media. They strike me as balanced and reasonable. They recognise her own failings in the past. They are in some respects critical of some professionals in the care system, but over-archingly are written to help others in the care system by sensible, practical and sensitive advice to people in times of need … The mother told me she now goes out to speak at Universities and to social workers about her experiences within the care system.

The agreed reporting restrictions include a provision that G can be identified as the writer of the anonymous blog “Surviving Safeguarding”, provided that she must not be identified by her real name.

By the 19th October, when this hearing took place, the lawyers for journalist and the local authority had agreed on the wording of a draft court order that they asked Mr Justice Bodey to approve. There was, by this point, no dispute on which he was asked to make a decision. Why was anyone in court then? – because a very serious detailed court order with careful reporting restrictions was required, and that needed judicial oversight.

As well as granting the order, the judge made some strong comments about the way in which parties should behave in a situation like this. (I have emphasised his advice below).

… this application demonstrates how time consuming and troublesome applications like this can be; not only for the media, but also for the court and for all parties. These are not easy applications. They require time, effort, research and expense on what is essentially a satellite issue. For these reasons it is important that if and when Local Authorities and the media (and/or the other parties) do come to realise there is an issue between them about how much should be reportable and on what terms, there should be sensible and responsible dialogue as soon as possible, with a view to finding an early modus vivendi*. With the application of give-and-take, a measure of common-sense, and the engagement of the Children’s Guardian, it should be possible in most cases to come up with a formula based on decided authority which steers a path between (a) the need for greater transparency in the public interest, and (b) the need to respect the privacy and sensitivities of those whose lives are involved. Even if complete consensus cannot be reached through such a collaborative approach, it should be possible considerably to narrow the issues.

*a practical compromise

These comments may appear to be general and mere common sense, but Louise claimed that she had been put to considerable unnecessary delay and expense because of the non-collaborative attitude of the local authority and the late stage at which they had ageed to her very carefully-worded proposals to write about the family in a safe and non-identifying way. (Louise was represented pro bono by Lucy Reed, a member of the Transparency Project.)

It is of course right that local authorities, children’s guardians, and their lawyers should all seek to protect children’s privacy, but Mr Justice Bodey very helpfully suggests that constructive dialogue is the way to resolve any issues or concerns, rather than defensiveness and delay.

Interestingly, in previous research where young people have expressed concern or negativity about care cases being publicised, one instance where some suggested publicity might help was where parents could be allowed to explain their circumstances in a non-blaming way, so that they had a chance to tell the ‘truth’.

We look forward to reading  Louise’s article and what she and G can tell the public about family justice.