‘Baby J’s Father vs Staffordshire Social Workers

With no picture and no real names I present Baby J’s Father vs Staffordshire Social Workers

The lack of real names may to begin with seem like poor journalism, but in this case we aren’t really supposed to know them.

Although the story has been reported by many news sites:The TelegraphThe Dailymail, and The Guardian to name a few I’ll provide a basic summary also.

So here it goes:

  • Six hours after ‘Baby J’ was born the infant was taken away form its parents by Staffordshire social workers.
  • The father secretly filmed the occurance on his laptop, which he later uploaded to both facebook and youtube using the real names of the social workers and ‘Baby J’, whilst clearly expressing his distain for the social workers.
  • This lead Staffordshire social services to apply “for a wide-ranging reporting restrictions order which would prevent the publication of the child’s name, address and image. It would also have barred anyone from identifying the county council or employees involved in J’s case.” –The Telegraph

So heres what makes this particular case unique: The Judge, Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, rejected the application…sort of. So the result was that the only restrictions on ‘Baby J’s father’s freedom of speech is he cannot use the real names of ‘Baby J’ or either parent.

Below is a link to the official judgement documents, which is very interesting although I confess its a long read and a difficult one at times if you’re unfamiliar with the kind of phrasing only the legal profession could produce. http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Judgments/j-a-child-judgment.pdf

While Staffordshire social services may have been trying to silence the father on this matter and prevent him from speaking out publicly, from Munby’s comments we can see that is exactly what the Judge did not want to do.

 “a claim that any professional who falls into a certain class – and in the case of … social workers … the membership of the class is very large indeed – is, for that reason, and, truth be told, for that reason alone, entitled in current circumstances to have their identity protected, in plain language to have their identity concealed from the public”, will not succeed. Anonymity should not be extended to experts, local authorities and social workers unless there are compelling reasons.

26. The first matter relates to what it has become conventional to call transparency. There is a pressing need for more transparency, indeed for much more transparency, in the family justice system. There are a number of aspects to this.

27. One is the right of the public to know, the need for the public to be confronted with, what is being done in its name. Nowhere is this more necessary than in relation to care and adoption cases. Such cases, by definition, involve interference, intrusion, by the state, by local authorities and by the court, into family life. In this context the arguments in favour of publicity – in favour of openness, public scrutiny and public accountability – are particularly compelling. The public generally, and not just the professional readers of law reports or similar publications, have a legitimate, indeed a compelling, interest in knowing how the family courts exercise their care jurisdiction: Re X; London Borough of Barnet v Y and X [2006] 2 FLR 998, para [166].

30. Almost ten years ago I said this (Re B, para [103]):

“… We cannot afford to proceed on the blinkered assumption that there have been no miscarriages of justice in the family justice system. This is something that has to be addressed with honesty and candour if the family justice system is not to suffer further loss of public confidence. Open and public debate in the media is essential.”

I remain of that view. The passage of the years has done nothing to diminish the point; if anything quite the contrary.

35. In short, the remedy is publicity, “more speech, not enforced silence.”

Sorry but I feel the need to quote Munby further, because  I have no way to tell if anyone other than me was interested and committed enough to read the official Judgement documents through.

41. “It is sobering to recall that the judgment in F v Newsquest and Others was delivered in April 2004 at the very moment when Facebook, launched only a few weeks earlier at Harvard, was starting to sweep through the campuses of America. In the subsequent seven years, with the growth of Youtube and Twitter, the internet has had an even greater effect than was anticipated. The range of information available to the public is infinitely greater than twenty years ago”.

42. It is probably far too soon to be assessing the true implications of all this, and there is no need for me even to attempt to do so. It suffices for present purposes to make three points, building on what Tugendhat J said in MXB v East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust [2012] EWHC 3279 (QB), para [11]. First, the internet allows anyone, effectively at the click of a mouse, to publish whatever they wish to the entire world – or at least to everyone who has access to the internet. No longer does the campaigner have to persuade a publisher, newspaper or broadcaster to disseminate the message. So there is very little editorial control. The consequence is that the internet is awash with material couched in the most exaggerated, extreme, offensive and often defamatory terms, much of which has only a tenuous connection with objectively verifiable truth. Second, material once placed on the internet remains there indefinitely and, because of powerful search engines, is easily accessible by anyone wanting to track it down. Third, internet providers are often located outside the jurisdiction, in countries where practical difficulties or principled objections stand in the way of enforcing orders of this court.

43. All of this, it goes without saying, poses enormous challenges. The law must develop and adapt, as it always has done down the years in response to other revolutionary technologies. We must not simply throw up our hands in despair and moan that the internet is uncontrollable. Nor can we simply abandon basic legal principles. For example, and despite the highly objectionable nature of much of what is on the internet, we must, at least in the forensic context with which I am here concerned, cleave to the fundamentally important principles referred to in paras [37]-[40] above.

In considering the case I suggest that the considerations above are why it is of such importance. How can, and how should laws that apply to a defined physical community (the nation) be appropriated, translated and used in a community that has no real physical boundary.  Chapter 5 of Vincent Millar’s “Understanding Digital Culture” begs to be paired with this case of naming and shaming. Especially as it considers how the nature of ‘privacy’ within western culture is being changed by the development of digital medias, as well as how concerns about security arise from these changes “may be leading to further changes in our expectations of privacy” (Miller 112)

so a few final thoughts and things to consider before this post becomes too long (although that probably happened the moment I started quoting Munby)

Firstly, this case sets a precedence. When we remember that it is still the early days of the digital world, the application of or decision not to apply laws of the state to the digital world is particularly serious as it builds the foundations of digital laws.

Secondly these decisions are even more important because they contribute to changing the culture of privacy. Technological advancement and people’s interaction with technologies may be forcing changes but in a way legal decisions are sanctifying the change, putting their seal of approval on it and further cementing cultural expectations of privacy.

And Finally, do these kind of decisions create a greater separation of real world and digital world by determining that a rule that continues to apply in one does not apply in the other?

 

 

 

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