Court considers request to disclose information about man suspected of child abuse

The high court has considered further questions of disclosure of
information about sexual offenders. (See also legal update 14
January 2002.)

In Re C (sexual abuse: disclosure) 14 February 2002 a father had
a long history of allegations of serious sexual abuse made against
him by young children. Since none of the allegations had ever
resulted in any criminal conviction, he was outside the compulsory
registration regime of the Sex Offenders Act 1997. In 1995 he moved
to a flat owned by the D housing association, who also owned flats
nearby which housed families with children. In 1999 his partner
gave birth to a son, and in view of the history the local authority
took care proceedings. The judge was satisfied of a substantial
number of allegations and made a care order in respect of the
respondents’ child.

The local authority were given leave to disclose a copy of the
judgement of the care proceedings to the Department of Health and
to any social services department or police force within any area
where the father might be residing. Permission was then sought to
disclose the findings made in the care proceedings to the D housing
association and to other housing associations or private landlords
to whom the first respondent might in the future make an
application for accommodation. The object of the application was to
try to ensure as far as possible that families with children were
not moved into accommodation near to the respondents and that, if
for any reason the respondents moved out of their present
accommodation, they were not re-accommodated near to such

The court ruled:

(1) In addition to the required balancing
exercise of competing rights and interests, such as the welfare and
interests of other children generally, against the maintenance of
confidentiality and the importance of encouraging frankness in
children’s cases, there also had to be real and cogent evidence of
a pressing need for the requested disclosure. The court had to

(a) the interests of the alleged paedophile and his family;

(b) the likely impact which the disclosure might have on them in
terms of vigilantism, gossip and employment difficulties;

(c) the risk of driving the paedophile ‘underground’ whereby he
might become a greater risk to children;

(d) the difficulties in controlling sensitive information once
it had been released further than to ‘the usual’ statutory
agencies; and

(e) the overall circumstances of the case.

Further relevant factors were:

(i) the extent of the police or local authority’s belief in the
truth of the allegations: the greater the conviction in their
truth, the more pressing would be the need for disclosure;

(ii) the extent of the interests of the third party in obtaining
the information: the more intense the legitimacy of the interest of
the third party in having the information, the more pressing the
need to disclose was likely to be; and

(iii) the degree of risk posed by the person if disclosure was
not made.

Since the father had never been convicted of any sexual abuse,
disclosure of information had to be regarded as exceptional.
However, the balancing exercise came down in favour of permitting
disclosure by the police and the social services to the D housing
association since there was real and cogent evidence of a pressing
need for disclosure. Such disclosure had to be limited to that
necessary to achieve the legitimate aim of trying to prevent crime
and/or in the assist in the protection of children.

(2) In respect of disclosure to other housing
associations and landlords, the applicants had not made out their
case. If the information was more widely released, there were
greater difficulties in controlling it. Such difficulties of
control increased:

(a) the risk of harm to the respondents from the local
community; and/or

(b) the possibility of greater risks to the general community
from the respondents ‘going underground.’ That was not to say that
an order permitting such wider disclosure might not be justified in
the future; but it was a question better addressed incrementally,
if and when the need arose. The wider disclosure sought did not at
this stage constitute a ‘pressing need’.

Richard White

White and Sherwin Solicitors

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