What weight do we attach to the welfare of a child when considering publishing information about care proceedings?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

This post is the text of my advice to the journalist Louise Tickle with regard to the extent to which the welfare of the child would be considered ‘paramount’ in any application to publish information about care proceedings.  This matter was raised before the Court of Appeal by Paul Bowen QC on February 15th 2019 as potentially an issue with which the Court should grapple when considering Ms Tickle’s application, but all agreed that this was not the appropriate case to investigate such arguments – though no doubt it will require resolution in some future case. 

I conclude very firmly that the child’s welfare simply cannot be paramount in any attempt to balance the competing rights protected by Articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR. Paramount means ‘more important than anything else; supreme’. It therefore cannot be part of any ‘balancing exercise’. If a right is ‘supreme’ then it will always tip the scales in its favour, no matter what counterbalancing weight is added to other side of the scales. To afford the child’s welfare ‘paramountcy’ would be to render the balancing exercise obsolete. 

I stress that what follows is my own view – the potential for further interesting argument is underscored by the fact that at least one QC who has read it expresses scepticism about my conclusions. Watch this space!

Advice concerning any possible ‘tension’ in the applicability of the paramountcy principle to those cases where requests are made for publicity

I have been asked to consider the following remarks made by the President of the Family Division in the case of In re W (Children) (Care Proceedings: Publicity) [2016] EWCA Civ 113 2015 Nov 23; 2016 Feb 25 (para 41 – 43):

During the hearing of the appeal we accepted the jointly argued approach of counsel and that, in turn, was the basis upon which we came to the decision on the appeal which we announced at the conclusion of the oral hearing. In the process of preparing this written judgment, however, I have come to the preliminary view that there may be a conflict, or at least a tension, between the apparently accepted view that welfare is not the paramount consideration on an issue such as this, on the one hand, and Court of Appeal authority to the contrary on the other hand. As this present judgment is a record of the reasons for our decision announced on 23 November 2015 and that decision was based upon the children’s welfare not being the paramount consideration, I do no more than flag up this potential point which, if it is arguable ,must fall for determination by this court on another occasion.
The key authorities to which I am referring are a criminal case in the House of Lords, In re S (A Child) (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) [2004] UKHL 47; [2005] 1 AC 593; [2004] 3 WLR 1129, a private law family case in the Court of Appeal, Clayton v Clayton [2006] Fam 83,and a public law child case in the High Court, In re Webster [2007] 1 FLR 1146.
Although, in my view, a reading of those cases may give rise to a potential point relating to the paramountcy of the child’s welfare, which, as I have stated, must fall for determination on another occasion, it is not necessary to go further in this judgment and consider the matter in any detail.

Summary

It is my very clear view that there is neither ‘conflict’ nor ‘tension’ as to when we must apply the paramountcy principle in cases involving requests to allow or restrict publicity about a case that involves a child. What there is however is potential for confusion, which in my mind is most likely to flow from a lack of engagement with what ‘welfare’ requires in any given case; a view having appeared to have taken hold of late that any publicity is of necessity a ‘bad thing’ for a child. I note for example and with some concern the President’s recent championing of the ALC/Brophy research about the views of ‘young people’. Given the small and self selecting nature of their research group, I and many others do not consider that research can properly bear the weight that some apply to it.

Having reviewed the authorities cited by the President it does not appear to me that there exists any such declaration, obiter or otherwise, against settled understanding. What would probably assist both practitioners and the judiciary would be some clear pronouncement in these current proceedings as to the necessary distinction between two different classes of case: Is the court faced with:
a. a matter directly pertaining to the child’s upbringing – when welfare IS paramount and IS the trump card –BUT still needs to be identified;
b. Or a matter of much wider significance that engages the rights and freedoms protected by Article 10 of the ECHR – when the welfare of any individual child, while relevant and important cannot be the ‘trump card against the Convention rights of others and a balancing act then commences.

In the latter scenario it is clear that it would be unlawful to then ‘put the child’s welfare on a pedestal which is incompatible with a Convention right’ (see Mr Justice Munby as he then was, at para 59 of his judgment in Norfolk County Council v Webster & Ors [2006] EWHC 2733 (Fam)

I assert that the correct distillation of the current law that is that there is no special privilege accorded to children who are the subject matter of proceedings save as is strictly necessary for their protection in the context of the proceedings themselves – see R v Central Independent Television PLC 1994 Fam 192 at 207 per Waite LJ.

In cases where ‘welfare’ is the paramount consideration, the analysis cannot simply stop there and on an assertion that greater publicity will inevitably harm the child. There must be a clear analysis of what exactly is proposed by way of greater publicity and what exactly it is anticipated will be the impact on the child – note the analysis carried out in Clayton v Clayton [2006] EWCA Civ 878.

 

I shall explain my reasoning in more detail below.

The statutory basis for the paramountcy principle.

In proceedings under the Children Act 1989 section 1 (1) reads:

When a court determines any question with respect to—
(a) the upbringing of a child; or
(b) the administration of a child’s property or the application of any income arising from it,
the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.

We are given little assistance in fleshing this out in the definitions section which reads simply:
“upbringing”, in relation to any child, includes the care of the child but not his maintenance;

The dictionary definition of ‘upbringing’ is
the treatment and instruction received by a child from its parents throughout its childhood.

If the court is deciding a matter that goes to ‘upbringing’ then children do rightly have this special privilege of a ‘trump card’. The matter before the court is relating to their private family life and the decision made by the court will matter hugely to them, but probably not very much to anyone else outside their family circle.

 

The authorities considered by the President

A possible explanation for how confusion has arisen with regard to the applicability of the paramountcy principle may be seen from the comments of Lady Justice Hale (as she then was) in the Court of Appeal when considering Re S [2004] (op cit).

This case involved a decision by Hedley J to dismiss an application for an injunction restraining the publication by newspapers of the identify of a mother who was on trial for the murder of her elder child. This had been sought to protect the privacy of the younger surviving sibling who was not involved in the criminal proceedings. A child psychiatrist had opined that if there were a ‘long period of adverse publicity’ this would significantly increase the surviving child’s propensity to develop a ‘psychiatric disorder’. However the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal by a majority and the House of Lords came to the same conclusion.

Hedley J commented that he would have come to the same conclusion even if he had been persuaded that the surviving child’s welfare was paramount. Hale LJ rightly commented that this was an odd thing to say; had the child’s welfare been paramount then it was the ‘trump card’. However, it was not felt necessary to resolve this ‘dilemma’, presumably because all agreed that the child’s welfare was NOT paramount in these circumstances. The House of Lords eventually decided that Hedley J had made the right decision but had not properly carried out the required balancing exercise between the child’s right to privacy and the established importance of criminal proceedings being open and transparent.

Therefore, it does not appear to me that Re S raises any difficulty about the general proposition that the child’s welfare is NOT paramount in such cases. This was about a criminal trial and the identification of the defendant. It did not concern the child’s upbringing – but no doubt might have some impact on it. However, and sadly as Hedley J identified, it was ‘inevitable’ that those who know the child would realise who he was and the nature of his mother’s alleged crime, whether she was named or not.

The cases of Clayton and Webster engaged in more detail this distinction between cases involving ‘upbringing’ and those that engage much wider concerns about rights of freedom of expression .

For example, in Clayton, the father had been restrained from publishing any information about matters concerning his daughter until her 18th birthday. The father argued that this impeded his ability to effectively lobby, comment upon or campaign about the family court because this involves discussion of the human aspects of individual cases and specifically his own. Although he had behaved badly and abducted his daughter to Portugal, the parents had in the end been able to agree shared care arrangements and he wanted to be able to talk about that.

The court agreed that the father should not be restrained from his campaigning work as this was a legitimate wish and those activities did not relate to the upbringing of C or substantially engage her welfare interests. His one proposal that did engage her upbringing was his wish to return with C to Portugal and film her there, possibly for a documentary. The court refused to allow this, describing it as a ‘self exculpatory publicity exercise’.

So again, there is no identifiable tension here. Where the matters did not pertain directly to C’s welfare, the balancing exercise between Articles 8 and 10 had to be conducted. Where the matter did pertain directly to her welfare then this was the paramount consideration and overrode the father’s wish for greater publicity.

An interesting tension however does arise in paragraph 59 where Sir Mark Potter comments that even when welfare is paramount ‘it does not exclude the necessity for the court to consider Article 8 and 10’, citing Re Z A Minor 1997 Fam 1.

This would appear to contradict Hale LJ’s observation that the welfare principle, if applied, was indeed the trump card and renders the distinction between ‘upbringing’ and ‘non- upbringing’ cases as obsolete. It is then even more intriguing that the President appears to have identified a rather different tension in the opposite direction!

However, it is my assertion that this is arid territory and matters are drifting into unnecessarily complication. The ‘tension’ – such as it is – is clearly sensibly resolved by the focus being on whether or not the court are engaged with matters of ‘upbringing’ .It may not always be possible to draw a clear line but I suggest that there will be certain classes of case that fall more clearly on one side of the line than others.

For example, the present case under appeal cannot, in my view, be sensibly characterised in any way as relating to any child’s upbringing. The Article 10 rights in play relate clearly to the public interest in being able to discuss what happened to a mother who needed to find £20K to fund an appeal against a decision that was found to be inadequate by the Court of Appeal – a decision that could have lead to the adoption of her child by strangers.

There is further useful discussion in the case of Webster. This had involved a considerable amount of publicity around the birth of the Webster’s fourth child – their elder three children having been removed and adopted in what the Webster’s and many others asserted was a gross miscarriage of justice. Munby J (as he then was) opened the proceedings to selected media representatives. Again, this was not a case about ‘upbringing’ of an individual child but broader comments on the operation of the family justice system.

As Munby J stated at para 59 of his judgment, he agreed with the submissions of those who argued that section 97(4) of the Children Act had to be read as permitting the court to dispense with the prohibition on publication in section 97(2) where the right of free expression under Article 10 or other Convention rights require it:

‘To do otherwise would, as Mr Warby put it, place the child’s interests on a pedestal in a way which is incompatible with the Convention. I agree’.

Any attempt to argue that ‘upbringing’ should be extended to include influence on those rights and freedoms protected under Article 10 of the ECHR would, in my view, fall foul of section 3(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 which requires legislation to be read and given effect in a way that is compatible with Convention Rights.

The rather intriguing comment that the balancing exercise should still follow even after identification of welfare as paramount, is in my view best explained by reframing that concern as the need for a proper analysis of what the child’s welfare actually requires in any given case. Clayton shows the court clearly engaging with this and considering in some detail exactly what the father proposed by way of additional publicity and what the impact on the child should be.

Conclusion

I therefore propose that the Court of Appeal should be invited to state the law in the following way:
a. The principle that the child’s welfare is paramount applies only to those cases directly engaging issues around the child’s upbringing.
b. Cases which involve significant media interest around issues pertaining to matters of wider importance – such as proper conduct of criminal proceedings or a wish to shine a light on a possible miscarriage of justice – are unlikely to be categorised as relating solely or even primarily to a child’s upbringing and the balancing exercise between Articles 8 and 10 must then be undertaken
c. Even if the court decides the child’s welfare is paramount, that still requires some analysis of what ‘welfare’ actually demands; it cannot be assumed that the mere fact of publicity will cause a child harm.

EDIT MARCH 9th 2019 – Consideration of further case law.

Paul Bowen QC asked me to consider further 2 authorities; one from the Constitutional Court of South Africa Case CCT 53/06 [2007] ZACC 18 and R v Petherwick [2012] EWCA Crim 2214.

On considering these two cases, I remain firm in my view that ‘paramountcy’ alone using its dictionary definition as ‘supreme’ is an empty vessel. One cannot determine ‘paramountcy’ without a clear sighted analysis of what impact each decision will have on each child.  The South African Courts appeared stuck with the very broad reference of their Constitution but managed to wiggle out by reframing ‘paramountcy’ as requiring a detailed analysis of the impact of the decision upon the child, whilst weighing in the balance competing rights that impacted on society more widely.

I do not accept that section 1 of the Children Act bears comparison to section 28 of the SA Constitution as it is explicitly restricted to matters of ‘upbringing’. If I am wrong about that, it seems to matter not as presumably the English court could simply follow the South African example and accept that ‘paramount’ when applied to questions of children’s welfare in the context of wider societal demands – such as imprisoning criminals or letting journalists do their job – cannot possibly mean ‘supreme’ but rather a reminder that we must focus on the impact of each decision on the child and strive for the most proportionate balance between competing rights and interests.

The first case in the South African court asked the question:

When considering whether to impose imprisonment on the primary caregiver of young children, did the courts below pay sufficient attention to the constitutional provision that in all matters concerning children, the children’s interests shall be paramount?

This case involved a single mother of three children, two teenagers and an 8 year old. She was a habitual fraudster and was eventually sentenced to four years in prison, despite a report saying the mother was a strong candidate for a non-custodial sentence.The Centre for Child Law of the University of Pretoria was admitted as amicus curiae and made wide-ranging written and oral submissions on the constitutional, statutory and social context around this question.

The court agreed that the nature of the crime, the personal circumstances of the criminal and the interests of the community are all relevant considerations when determining the appropriate sentence for a criminal offence.  It cited with approval the words of Friedman J in the case of Banda who advanced a clear balancing exercise between these tensions:

A court should, when determining sentence, strive to accomplish and arrive at a judicious
counterbalance between these elements in order to ensure that one element is not
unduly accentuated at the expense of and to the exclusion of the others.

The issue now before the court was the extent to which the Constitution had impacted upon this balancing exercise. Section 28(2) of the Constitution provides that “[a] child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.

There were already serious questions about the efficacy of such a wide-ranging provision. The court cited Van Dijkhorst J in the case of Jooste:

The] wide formulation [of section 28(2)] is ostensibly so all-embracing that the
interests of the child would override all other legitimate interests of parents, siblings
and third parties. It would prevent conscription or imprisonment or transfer or
dismissal by the employer of the parent where that is not in the child’s interest. That
can clearly not have been intended. In my view, this provision is intended as a
general guideline and not as a rule of law of horizontal application. That is left to the
positive law and any amendments it may undergo.”

However, the court then went on to comment about the necessary change in ‘mind-set’ brought about by the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, reflected in the constitution:

The unusually comprehensive and emancipatory character of section 28 presupposes that in our new dispensation the sins and traumas of fathers and mothers should not be visited on their children.

The court referred to a variety of commentary about the inherent weakness in any argument about ‘welfare being paramount’ or that matters must be decided ‘in the child’s best interests’ – because everyone had such different ideas about what exactly this would encompass. However, the court ingeniously declared that far from this being a weakness it was as strength – as it pushed people to clearly focus on the individual child before them.

Yet this Court has recognised that it is precisely the contextual nature and inherent flexibility of section 28 that constitutes the source of its strength. Thus, in Fitzpatrick this Court held that the best interests principle has “never been given exhaustive content”, but that “[i]t is necessary that the standard should be flexible as individual circumstances will determine which factors secure the best interests of a particular child.”29  Furthermore “‘(t)he list of factors competing for the core of best interests [of the child] is almost endless and will
depend on each particular factual situation’.”30 Viewed in this light, indeterminacy of
outcome is not a weakness. A truly principled child-centred approach requires a close
and individualised examination of the precise real-life situation of the particular child
involved. To apply a pre-determined formula for the sake of certainty, irrespective of
the circumstances, would in fact be contrary to the best interests of the child concerned.

Equally if the ‘paramoutcy phrase’ was spread ‘too thin’ then it risked becoming empty rhetoric. Its application cannot mean that the direct or indirect impact on children of any action is enough to oust proper considerations of that action. The court stated that section 28 was not mean as ‘an overbearing and unrealistic trump of other rights’ and is capable of limitation, discussing for example the obligation to return a child to the country of habitual residence in cases of child abduction.

Interestingly the court then stated

Accordingly, the fact that the best interests of the child are paramount does not mean that they are absolute.Like all rights in the Bill of Rights their operation has to take account of their relationship to other rights, which might require that their ambit be limited.

This appears to be linguistic trickery if we take the standard dictionary meaning of ‘paramount’ as ‘supreme’ or ‘more important than anything else’.

The court decided that it was not imprisoning a primary care giver that violated section 28 of the Constitution but rather any such imprisonment that did not give proper consideration to the rights of the children involved. The court suggested the following areas should be considered when dealing with sentencing a primary care giver.

  • To establish whether there will be an impact on a child.
  • To consider independently the child’s best interests.
  • To attach appropriate weight to the child’s best interests.
  • To ensure that the child will be taken care of if the primary caregiver is
    sent to prison.

What is this if not another clear example of a balancing exercise?  The court recognised that of course children have a right and a need to be cared for by their primary care giver – but they also have a right to grow up in a society where criminality is dealt with. To say simply that ‘the child’s welfare is paramount’ without further examination is to risk sacrifice of other hugely important rights that impact on society at large. The parallels with arguments for reporting resections are obvious.

The court eventually decided in this case that  M, her children, the community and the victims who will be repaid from her earnings, benefitted more from her being placed under correctional supervision, rather than imprisonment. 

In the second case the mother was sentenced to four years and nine months imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving and appealed on the basis that this sentence did not take sufficient account of the Article 8 rights of her young son. This was a serious case of its type and the starting point for sentencing was 8 years. Happily her son had not gone into state care but was being cared for by family members. The Court of Appeal were content that the trial judge had carefully weighed all relevant matters in the scale and his approach was ‘immaculate’ – however they would reduce the sentence from four years 9 months to 3 years 10 months in light of the representations made on the mother’s behalf.

This case therefore does not appear to engage discussion of the paramoutcy principle, other than to cite with approval the South African case discussed above –

Seventh, the likelihood, however, of the interference with family life which is inherent in a sentence of imprisonment being disproportionate is inevitably progressively reduced as the offence is the graver and M v The State SA 2008 232 is again a good example.

One thought on “What weight do we attach to the welfare of a child when considering publishing information about care proceedings?

  1. Angelo Granda

    A Parent’s View.

    Public Law Child -protection proceedings ,by their very calling and nature must place as paramount the welfare interests of the child/children involved.
    The Convention rights to proportionality and fairness must be observed because they are a key essential to those welfare interests. Withdrawing basic human rights such as free speech,free publication, fair and open court hearings etc. is totally disproportionate. Difficulties arise ( maybe deliberate in the lower courts) because the paramount welfare interests of children are confused with what the cp professionals see as their ‘best interests’.
    I don’t feel it is right to make human rights subject to any balancing act undertaken at the discretion of a civil court Judge. There is no pressing social need as might be proportionate when ,for example, matters of national security or safeguarding of children by the criminal justice system is being considered.

    As the post-writer has highlighted, Private Law proceedings are not always brought in the paramount interests of children and their ‘upbringing’ thus, in my opinion, the human rights of the parents are more important in such cases. I suggest that lawyers should examine all cases with great care prior to issuing proceedings with the intention of keeping them on the correct track. If the child/children and their upbringing are not the main issue then parents should be made to bring cases against each other in a proper court by which i mean one which does not admit hearsay ,medical and other non-factual evidence which is ‘untestable’ or alternatively in the Family Court but one which has limitations. One limitation, for the sake of proportionality, would be that no convention right can be made subject of any balancing act.
    Hope this parent’s opinion helps; as always i understand it may seem overly simplistic to the lawyers but i hope it can be understood by other parents.
    Actually , our opinions are more important to the Public .

    Reply

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