Legal Update: When information can and cannot be disclosed

Ed Mitchell (pictured) considers the complex area of when information can and cannot be disclosed in connection with cases involving children

Disclosure and the sharing of information are complex topics because they engage multiple interests. This was illustrated by the recent court decision to lift an order prohibiting anyone naming Baby P’s mother and partner. In that case, the court reluctantly lifted the order because its purpose had been undermined by easy access to their names on the internet. This meant that, in the court’s opinion, maintaining respect for the court system called for removal of what had become an ineffective attempt to keep the names secret.

But Baby P’s case was just one of a number of recent decisions about when information can and cannot be disclosed in connection with work with children.

A Local Authority v A Mother (July 2009) involved a married Muslim woman who told a social worker that, on holiday, she had sex with a number of men, sometimes in her child’s presence. The mother wanted this information kept out of court papers in subsequent care proceedings for fear of violence from her husband, to whom the papers would be disclosed. The High Court refused the mother’s application because there was not a risk of “really serious bodily harm” arising from disclosure.

Private family law dispute

N (a Child) (July 2009) concerned a private family law dispute between parents. A psychiatrist was instructed to report on the mother. The father made several allegations about the conduct and competence of the psychiatrist. The High Court held that the father was permitted to disclose the reports to the General Medical Council in order to make a complaint against the psychiatrist. In so finding, the Court observed that the GMC was obliged by law not to misuse the sensitive information contained in the reports.

H (Children) (July 2009) concerned a police application for disclosure of evidence filed in care proceedings relating to alleged child abuse. The court refused the application. But the Court of Appeal overturned that decision because the court had not appreciated that the rules about disclosure to the police had been relaxed. The police application will now be re-heard.

Northumberland County Council v Z & Y (March 2009) arose because a Kenyan child was brought into the UK on false papers by a couple who wished to adopt her. Care proceedings were brought and the child was returned to Kenya to be adopted there. The High Court granted the local authority’s application to disclose a transcript of the judgment given in the proceedings to the police for an investigation into whether offences had been committed.

Allegations of sexual abuse

W v Chief Constable of Northumbria (April 2009) began with the daughter of a delivery driver making allegations of sexual abuse against her father. Care proceedings were begun. A social worker was concerned that the man, whom she thought a “classic groomer”, would, as a delivery man, have access to people’s homes.

She informed the police who, even though the CPS decided not to prosecute, informed the man’s employer about his daughter’s allegations. He was dismissed from his job and brought a judicial review of the police’s decision. The claim was dismissed. The High Court found that the police had been entitled to conclude that there was a “pressing need” to disclose the information to the employer.

Ed Mitchell is a solicitor and editor of Social Care Law Today

Published in Community Care 1 October 2009 under the heading Why court rulings on disclosing information are so fraught

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