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10 January 2000

The story I’m not allowed to tell you

Bob Woffindentiptoes around the law to report the extraordinary case of a broken family

By Bob Woffinden

I’d like to tell you a horrendous story. It’s about a mother and her child, who live somewhere in Britain . . . sorry, this is going to get me into trouble. I’ve already given too much away.

Let me try again. I’m investigating this story . . . no, that won’t do. I’m not supposed to be investigating it.

The problem is that what I may or may not be looking into is covered by an injunction. This is what the injunction prevents me, or anyone else, from doing:

Soliciting any information relating to the minor or her parents from the parents of the minor, members of the minor’s family, any staff at any medical establishment where the minor has been or is [now] . . . or any educational establishment at which she has been or is being educated or any person who may have care of the minor.
Publishing any information relating to the minor or her parents or members of the minor’s family obtained directly or indirectly from any other person.

That’s what you could describe as a blanket ban. Nor is anyone talking “D” notices or invoking national security. This is just a family affair. It is along roughly similar lines to what is known as a Mary Bell order, so called because an injunction was originally taken out to protect a child who had been convicted of murdering two other children. The idea was that, if the child’s treatment and whereabouts became the subject of press debate, the chances of her successful rehabilitation would be greatly reduced. The logic is the same as that which normally prevents minors being named in court cases. Another injunction prevents publication of certain details about Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were convicted of James Bulger’s murder.

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However, yet another child famously protected by a Mary Bell order was Sara Keays’s daughter, Flora. But in that case no criminal activity of any kind was involved. And the consensus of opinion was that the order was brought in not to safeguard the interests of the child, but to safeguard the interests of her father, Lord Parkinson, who found the continuing press interest in his daughter politically and personally embarrassing. Certainly, that was how Keays herself saw it.

In this present case – which, you understand, I don’t really know about – the claims of the family are remarkably similar. According to them, this injunction also has nothing to do with the well-being of the child and everything to do with the fears of powerful people for their professional reputations and financial well-being.

The case involves a child separated from her family apparently against her and her mother’s will. The child has written heartbreaking letters, pleading to be reunited with her mother. If the public knew what was going on there would be an outcry, but the injunction, brought in under the Children Act 1989, prevents any publicity at all.

One journalist who has specialised in similar cases, usually involving children, families and social workers, told me he could wallpaper his room with injunctions. Whenever the authorities get to hear of press interest in a case (as they inevitably will, if the case is being conscientiously researched), then they quickly apply for an injunction. Judges always grant them; they never rescind them. No doubt they genuinely believe they are acting in the interests of the child.

Had the mother in this instance ever been charged with a criminal offence (which she never has been), she would have received legal representation, access to evidence and a public hearing. In her situation, she has been denied all of those basic rights. She has also been deprived of her freedom of speech, since, as the House of Lords has ruled, freedom of speech is a meaningful right only if it incorporates the right of access to the media. Yet the injunction in effect stifles journalistic inquiry, never mind publication (see text above).

Nor can the mother get appropriate legal representation. Every time the solicitor who has tried to act for her has applied for essential material, he has been fobbed off with a copy of the injunction. In theory, the injunction should not apply to legal representation; in practice, it does.

So the imposition of the injunction means that the authorities are not accountable for their actions. In fact, even the injunction itself illustrates their absolute arrogance. It is littered with mistakes. Whoever drew it up can’t use apostrophes or even spell “solicitors” correctly. One court order binds the family to hand over material coming into their possession “after 25 November 19988”. Freed from the possibility of public scrutiny of their actions, the authorities can behave with impunity.

Hardly surprisingly, with the injunction in place, the case history becomes increasingly distorted. A mistake or misapprehension is transferred from one document to the next, on the Chinese whispers principle, becoming both embellished and more established “fact” in the process.

This case is about – I can resist the temptation no longer – allegations of serious medical negligence and an ensuing cover-up, during which the child has been taken into care. Such matters are currently of particular general interest, the public mood having been perfectly caught by a cartoon in Private Eye: “You can trust me – I’m not a doctor.” In this case, the family claim that, the diagnosis of an illness having eluded a succession of doctors, they simply diagnosed it themselves via the Internet. A tall story? Hardly. A few weeks ago, the press reported a case in which just that had happened.

Nevertheless, I can’t tell you about any of this. I’ve already said far too much. After all, this is 21st-century Britain with a government committed to freedom of information. Mum’s the word.

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