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Parents at loggerheads over child can be named says High Court

The High Court has given the media permission to name the couple involved a recent legal dispute over the future of their child.

The case concerned a high profile actress employed by the BBC, who resigned and travelled to Sydney, Australia to set up home up with the father of her young son, ‘D’. She returned, however, with the boy just days after their arrival, after reportedly discovering details of the father’s lifestyle.

He travelled back to Britain and launched a claim under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. He alleged that the mother had ‘abducted’ their son – i.e. removed the youngster from his legal home without the father’s permission. But the claim was rejected by Deputy Judge Alex Verdan QC, who ruled that the boy had never acquired ‘habitual residence’ in Australia and so there was no legal basis to the claim that he had been abducted by his mother.

The case attracted media interest and was reported in The Times, The Daily Mail, and The Sun. None reported the couple’s identities. However, prior the High Court hearing, an article also appeared in Sydney newspaper The Daily Telegraph and that did name the participants and also featured a photo. In a ruling separate to the main one , Judge Verdan explained:

“It is difficult to understand how that newspaper obtained the details for that story, which is written very much from the father’s perspective and obtained the photograph without the father’s cooperation and [his barrister] Miss Renton on his behalf was unable to provide the court with any clarity on this point.”

At the main hearing, the Judge had confirmed to the journalists in attendance that they could “report the fact that the proceedings were being heard and repeat the details that had already appeared in the media in this jurisdiction but should not identify the parties and D.”

Counsel for media giant News Group Newspapers (NGN) attended to apply for permission to report the evidence presented in the case and identify the parties. Judge Verdan adjourned the issue until the morning after the main hearing.

NGN’s barrister argued that there was significant public interest in the case which justified reporting details of the case beyond those already in the public domain. Amongst the reasons cited was the fact that the mother was a television celebrity who has frequently given interviews and made comments Twitter in which she named her son. She faced a serious allegation and “justice should be administered in the open”.

In addition, the barrister argued, D was so young at the time (just two) that he would be unlikely to experience any distress as a result of short-term media coverage. In any case, his parents could easily protect him.

Judge Verdan concluded that there was no legitimate reason for the evidence presented in the case to be reported. The former couple’s rights to a private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights had to take precedence, he said. A report of these details would be “inappropriately inquisitive, prying, prurient and voyeuristic.”

However, the parties could be named. There was little risk to D of harm, the Judge explained. Although the boy could in theory discover the reported details as an adult and suffer some emotional harm, “there is also a chance, despite the digital footprint left by this news that in years to come such details will be less accessible.”

Judge Verdan continued:

“The court has to look at the likelihood of this harm and evaluate how serious the risk is but these are not the only factor to take into account … My assessment is that the likelihood of harm and risks are relatively low given the contents of my judgment, which is carefully crafted to avoid the sensationalist detail.”

Read the judgement here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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