STAFFORDSHIRE County Council has failed in a high court bid to obtain a wide-ranging injunction in relation to accusations made against its social workers on Facebook.
In a landmark ruling, Britain’s top family judge has bowed to the internet revolution and exposed the courts, social workers and others involved in sensitive childcare cases to the brunt of public criticism.
Confronting the challenge of the Facebook age, Sir James Munby, president of the High Court Family Division, underlined ‘the right of the public to know’ and said the ‘glare of publicity’ had to be allowed into the family courts.
Staffordshire County Council went to court in a bid to halt a venomous internet campaign by a father who had had all four of his children taken into care, and who described social workers as wicked and predatory child-snatchers.
The father’s furious postings on Facebook – including covert video footage of social workers – named names and spread across the internet after his one-day-old son was taken from the family home by social workers.
The council sought a wide-ranging injunction, banning internet sites across the world from naming the boy – ‘J’ – and forcing them to remove the footage.
An embargo on identifying the boy’s parents, the council and social workers involved was also sought.
However, emphasising that the family justice system had to rise above accusations of ‘secret justice’ and confront openness and public criticism, Sir James said it was not his role to ‘spare the blushes’ of social workers or the local authority.
The breadth of the injunction sought by the council was ‘thoroughly undesirable’, said the judge, who refused to ban public identification of Staffordshire social workers or other professionals involved in the case.
Recognising the potential harm publicity could cause J as he grows up, Sir James ruled that he and his parents must not be named, but permitted the video footage of J’s removal to remain online in anonymised form.
Sir James said, since the abolition of the death penalty, the power of family judges to separate parents from their children was ‘amongst the most drastic’ available to the courts.
He added: “When a family judge makes a placement or an adoption order in relation to a 20-year-old mother’s baby, the mother will have to live with the consequences of that decision for what may be upwards of 60 or even 70 years, and the baby for what may be upwards of 80 or even 90 years. We must be vigilant to guard against such risks.
“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”.
Emphasising no legal system is infallible and miscarriages of justice occur, the judge said public confidence in the family courts depended on transparency and it was vital aggrieved parents be permitted to express their views.
The court heard the couple’s two oldest children, aged nine and 10, had already been adopted outside the family.
Their siblings – W, aged one, and J, aged five months – were both made the subject of emergency protection orders at birth.
The father had posted extensive material online about the children, including their names and photographs, and had showered abuse, insults and threats on social workers, accusing them of ‘snatching’ the children and subjecting them to ‘forced adoption’.
After J was born at home – allegedly against medical advice – the father announced his delivery on Facebook.
Social workers – described by the father as ‘the SS’ – were covertly filmed removing the child from his parents later that day and the images were posted online.
The images spread across the internet via Facebook, Youtube and other sites.