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Family Proceedings – Anonymity Orders v Freedom of Expression

Family courts routinely grant anonymity to children involved in care proceedings, but that inevitably has a chilling effect on parents and others who might wish to publicise their objections to judicial orders. Exactly that issue arose in one case in which a couple’s freedom of expression rights prevailed.

A judge had made care orders in respect of the couple’s four children and opened the way for the adoption of the two eldest. The couple’s response was to publish a petition on a popular website, addressed to Parliament and the Prime Minister. It criticised the judge’s decision and asked supporters to ‘please help stop the adoption of my two beautiful children.’

The local authority that had brought the proceedings sought an injunction against the couple, requiring them to take down the petition on the basis that it breached a court order banning identification of their children. It was argued that the petition violated the children’s human right to respect for their privacy and family lives and that the publicity was inimical to their welfare.

In ruling on the issue, the High Court noted that the couple had agreed to take down information that they had published about the case on social media. They had also consented to removal of the children’s photographs, names and ages from the petition. The council, however, argued that that did not go far enough and that the petition should be deleted from the internet in its entirety.

In permitting the petition to remain online in modified form, however, the Court noted that its removal would self-evidently conflict with the parents’ freedom to express their opposition to the judge’s orders. The older children were well aware of the care proceedings, and that their parents did not agree with the judge’s decision, and the petition was unlikely to disrupt efforts to find adoptive placements for them. There was very little cogent evidence that the children would suffer embarrassment or emotional harm if the petition remained in place.

The Court emphasised the importance of the principle that those citizens whose lives have been affected by state intervention should be able to publicly protest if they contend that they have suffered an injustice. In the present case, the couple had been the subject of public law proceedings under the Children Act 1989 and it would be disproportionate to compel them to remove the limited amount of information that would still be contained within the petition.

Southend Borough Council v CO & Anr. Case Number: FD7P00295

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