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23 NOV 2006

CARE/PUBLICITY: Re Webster; Norfolk County Council v Webster [2006] EWHC 2898 (Fam)

(Family Division; Munby J; 17 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. At an interim hearing, the judge greatly reduced the reporting restrictions, and granted the media permission to attend and report on the ongoing care proceedings. The parents had obtained an expert report which did not support their case; instead it confirmed unequivocally that the older child had suffered non-accidental injuries in the form of fractures which had probably been inflicted by one of the parents. The parents accordingly sought permission to instruct a US specialist. The local authority, having carried out an assessment which was cautiously optimistic about the couple's ability to parent the fourth child, were proposing an interim care plan in which the child would be returned to the care of the parents. The media present at the hearing had requested that the local authority position statement be disclosed. The parents submitted a draft of their proposed press release for the judge's comments.

Approving the interim care plan and granting the parents permission to instruct the US specialist, the judge also directed that the local authority's position statement be disclosed to the media. Advocacy in family cases involved, to an increased extent, written submissions, and it was important in the interests of open justice that the media attending the oral hearing should see aspects of the written submissions, as requested. The judge refused to comment on the draft of the parents' own press release. While a judge might in some circumstances prepare a summary of his or her own judgment in order to assist the media, sometimes inserting such a summary into the text of the judgment itself, and while it was sometimes appropriate to issue or approve the issue of a press statement or press release which, in lieu of judgment, set out in a neutral manner what had occurred during a hearing in private, a judge could not approve or censor a statement being made by one of parties following judgment.

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