Transparency as a way to correct a false narrative

Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum v Princess Haya [2022] EWFC 16

This is an interesting case. Although it is clearly ‘highly unusual’ for the family courts to find themselves dealing with foreign princes this case represents further exploration of how an individual’s wish to correct a false narrative can be used to argue against the default position that publicity is the exception in family cases. It also demonstrates that although the legal context for determining ‘family publication’ cases is now settled and uncontroversial, the specific facts of each case are going to continue to require detailed examination.

On 9th March the President of the Family Division handed down judgment in this case. The question for the court was whether the final welfare judgment of December 2021 should be published. This concerned the conclusion of long running wardships proceedings involving the parties two children aged 14 and 10. A total of 15 substantive judgments had already been published, with great media attention given that this case was ‘highly unusual’, involving the children of internationally known parents, one of whom is the Head of Government of a ‘prominent and powerful State’.

The President decided that the full judgment should be published, with some redaction. The key issue here was the publication of a welfare judgment concerning two clearly identified and publicly known children. Therefore the principles and themes developed in the recent Transparency Review did not have any direct resonance to the present unusual circumstances. The court had to find a ’bespoke’ solution by considering the particular facts and the individual needs of the two children balanced against the now firmly – and rightly – entrenched position in favour of anonymity for children in family proceedings.

Initially, the mother argued that the welfare judgment, in common with each preceeding judgment, should be published in full. The father and Children’s Guardian preferred publication to be restricted to a summary of the key elements of the decision. All agreed that in light of the degree of publicity already given to these proceedings, at least some form of summary of the welfare decision should be published. 

Following submissions in February 2022 the Children’s Guardian changed her position in light of a further statement from the mother and meeting with the children. The father did not actively oppose the Guardian’s revised position to publish a full judgment with redactions but did urge the court to consider that both the children’s and the public interest was better served by the publication of a ‘coherent and accessible summary’. 

The President found this a difficult decision. He had not written the welfare judgment with a view to future publication but rather to reflect the need to express his concluded views frankly and in detail so that the parents and in due course the children, could understand the court’s reasoning.  He noted that it was ‘highly unusual’ for the court to publish a welfare judgment when the identity of the children was fully and widely known and that none of the legal teams had been able to identify any such previous publication in such circumstances. This issue took on even greater significance knowing that the family are public figures in their own right in Dubai and elsewhere. 

The parties sought to rely upon the recent transparency review ‘Confidence and Confidentiality: Transparency in the Family Courts’ 29th October 2021 but the President was clear that this Report was ‘wholly irrelevant’ to the issue that currently fell for determination. The Report was clear that greater openness in Family Court Proceedings is not to be at the expense of the children and family concerned. In the unusual circumstances of the present case, the President was required to provide a ‘bespoke’ solution, informed by the specific facts of the case and the needs of the children. 

The overall legal context to determine publication of judgments in family cases was held to now be well settled and not controversial, relying on the need to strike a balance between competing ECHR rights and the statutory limits on identifying children. This case did not fit the ‘paradigm’ of a publicity application which usually focuses on Article 10 rights to free expression. Here the arguments in support of publication were geared towards the rights of the children and their mother to have their ‘story’ accurately available for public scrutiny to avoid the father being able to promote a false narrative. In particular, as the father was not being afforded direct contact with the children and his exercise of parental responsibility had been limited, it was important that third parties knew not to share information with him about the children that might put them at risk. The mother noted that the father had already been attempting to push a false narrative via social media that he had been reunited with his son. 

The President noted that the Court of Appeal had recently in Griffiths v Tickle [2021] EWCA Civ 1882 upheld a decision to publish findings of fact against Mr Griffiths, in part upon the established right of an individual to ‘tell their story’.  The Children’s Guardian in this case had also concluded that publication was in the welfare interests of the child. 

In the present case the Children’s Guardian found the decision was ‘finely balanced’ but had decided in favour of publication on the basis of the wishes and feelings of the children and the mother’s own views. The court gave considerable weight to the mother’s statement, which was not challenged. This had to be balanced against the firmly entrenched default position in favour of confidentiality. Little weight was placed on the fact that previous judgments had been published; the welfare judgment was in a separate category and requires a bespoke evaluation.