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08 SEP 2011

Hayley Trim's Analysis: Setting the Record Straight

Hayley Trim, Family Law PSLThe judgments in the Victoria Haigh case have now been published, reported as Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council v Watson [2011] EWHC B15 (Fam) and Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council v Haigh [2011] EWHC B16 (Fam). This case has received significant attention and in the last two weeks this has been at the behest of the court. The President issued a press release on 25 August explaining his reasons for naming the parties in the case and publishing the judgments, but the judgments themselves have only just become available.

The facts according to the judgments are basically this:

When the parents separated in 2005 the child lived with her mother and had regular contact, including staying contact, with her father. Allegations of sexual abuse were made against the father by the child, however at a fact finding hearing the judge found that these were false and had originated from the mother and that the mother had coached the child to make them. The child went to live with her grandmother in the interim pending a welfare decision. A further judge made a full care order and decided that the child should live with her father who would support the child's relationship with the mother, whereas the mother remained hostile to the child having contact with the father. The mother did not appeal either order, however she continued to assert that the father had abused the child. Although the local authority proposed that the mother have supervised contact with the child, she declined to do so. The local authority obtained an order under s 34 (4) of the Children Act permitting it to refuse to allow contact between the mother and the child. A standard reporting restriction order was also made by Baker J prohibiting the publication of information relating to the child, her parents, her school, the local authority, etc in so far as it could identify the child.

In breach of the court order, the mother, assisted by Elizabeth Watson a private investigator, published allegations against the father on the internet and emailed the father's work colleagues and parents at the child's school. The father had been accosted in the street and called a paedophile, his livelihood had been put at risk and the strain of the situation was impacting on his ability to care for the child. The local authority had not succeeded in having the offending websites taken down and concluded that it could not properly support the needs of the child with the situation as it was.  Having balanced the risks of doing so, the authority decided there was a need to publicly correct the false allegations against the father and sought an order to put information relating to the care proceedings into the public domain. The child's guardian supported this subject to the child not being named.

The President held that there was a need to make public the fact that two judges had found that Mr Tune was not a paedophile, had not sexually abused his daughter and that it was in the interests of the child to live with him. The father (David Tune), the mother (Victoria Haigh) and the local authority (Doncaster) could be named. The child should however not be named in line with the principle that children should remain anonymous in Children Act proceedings to protect them as much as possible (although clearly here many people would be able to identify the child in the context of the other information). A document setting out the information to be made public (which for example the headmaster of the child's school could use as he saw fit) is appended to the President's judgment.

This was an exceptional case and an order under s 91(14) was justified and proportionate to prevent the mother making any further application for 2 years without the leave of the court. Any application would be reserved to the President.

The President emphasised that any person who embraces one party's version of events and treats it as the whole truth is making a serious mistake. The only sensible view is to see what the court says in a judgment based on all the evidence. Ms Watson had, in breach of the court order, published a partial and tendentious version of events. She was clearly in contempt of court and was sentenced to 9 months in prison, although she was given the opportunity to show contrition and purge her contempt which she did and was released after a few days.

John Hemming MP had used parliamentary privilege to name the mother. The local authority invited the court to deprecate the use of parliamentary privilege to highlight a case like this as Mr Hemming had done in the face of a court order. The President declined to become involved in matters outside his province and not necessary for the resolution of the case in hand, but he noted that court orders are not made capriciously and any disobedience of them is to be deplored.

The information appended to the President's judgment concludes with a remark which highlights one of the inherent tensions between privacy and transparency in family cases.

"It is ironic, of course, that the mother has complained about the privacy of the Family Court process and has historically argued for greater openness. Realising that the professionals in the case would be bound by their respect for X's privacy, the mother has utilised this to promote her own distorted view of the case which she has been able to advance thus far, unopposed by the true facts."

The judgments of Judge Robertshaw and Judge Peter Jones in the fact finding and the final care order hearings respectively are also to be published once the details of the parties and the child have been amended in accordance with the President's judgment.

There is much scope for comment on this case, and there will be those who feel that there has been injustice to one (or both) of the parents, but I have gone on for long enough. All I would say is that I hope that going forward, the parents, families and professionals will do everything they can to support that little girl and give her the chance of a brighter future.

Hayley Trim is a Family Law PSL at Jordan Publishing and was formerly a family solicitor practising in London.

She works on the Family Law online major works providing updating notes on cases and other relevant developments as they happen for The Family Court Practice, Children Law and Practice and Matrimonial Property and Finance online.

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