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CARE/PUBLICITY: Re Webster; Norfolk County Council v Webster, BBC, Associated Newspapers Ltd and Archant Group [2006] EWHC 2733 (Fam)

Date:7 NOV 2006

(Family Division; Munby J; 2 November 2006)

The couple's three children had been taken into care and adopted, on the basis of, inter alia, allegations of physical abuse which the parents continued to deny. When the mother became pregnant with the fourth child, the parents moved to Ireland in an effort to evade further care proceedings, and publicised their story, arousing considerable media interest. On the parents' return, the local authority instituted care proceedings in respect of the fourth child. Severe reporting restrictions had been imposed. The media sought to lift those restrictions, and also sought permission to attend and to report on the care proceedings.

Having weighed the competing interests of open justice and confidentiality in children proceedings, the court considered that the reporting restrictions had been too wide and further that the media ought to be given access to the care proceedings in question. Four factors in particular were significant: the claim that the case involved a miscarriage of justice; the parents' own wish for publicity; the very extensive publicity there had already been; and the need for the full facts and the 'truth' to emerge in a way which would command public confidence. It was not clear what additional risks the child was likely to run if exposed to further publicity, given that the child's first name and his photograph were already in the public domain, and that many were already aware of the true identity of the parents. There was no disproportionate interference with the child's rights in permitting him and his parents to be identified by their real surname, while any greater degree of restraint would involve a disproportionate interference with the rights of the parents. The trial judge would retain the ultimate right to control access by the media to any hearing and it might be that there would be some particular part of the hearing during which it would be right to exclude them, perhaps, for example, while a particular witness was giving evidence. There might also be questions which could only be resolved at the hearing as to whether some category of witnesses, or a particular witness, should be entitled to anonymity.