A judge has rejected a local authority’s request that it should not be named by a grandmother planning to take her story to the press.
Judge Wildblood said Gloucestershire council’s bid to prevent the publication of its name in an anonymised critique of its conduct during care proceedings had “not got anywhere near” being justified.
The dispute followed care proceedings where Wildblood made a special guardianship order for a baby boy’s grandmother. The grandmother had told the court of her “profound dissatisfaction” about how she was treated by the local authority, and wanted to share an anonymised version of her statement on the issue with the local press.
The council and a children’s guardian had opposed the naming of the authority on the grounds it could aid jigsaw identification of the family, cause a ‘trial by media’, and possibly have an adverse effect on social work recruitment.
Wildblood said his role in proceedings was not to make a finding about the local authority’s conduct as put forward by the grandmother, but rule on whether it could be named.
Following the outcome of the hearing, the grandmother’s version of events was published in the judgment. During care proceedings, the local authority changed its position away from special guardianship towards adoption following one negative assessment of the grandmother by an independent social worker. The case for adoption was later dismissed by the agency decision maker.
Council ‘unused to being questioned’
In her statement, the grandmother said: “It has seemed that the local authority is unused to being questioned or called to account for their conduct, decisions or even their misinformation. Emails are frequently not acknowledged, questions not answered most of the time. When false information or advice is given it leads to a great deal of anxiety and sometimes extra costs.
“This has happened throughout this process. Yet no one takes responsibility for their actions. It struck me that social workers are unused to the clients they work with demanding to be treated with respect, honesty and efficiency. There is a reliance on procedure without examining the particulars of a situation.”
The judge said the evidence for naming the local authority was “overwhelming”, and doing so would not increase the risk of jigsaw identification.
Local authority’s case
During the hearing, the local authority submitted that it should not be named because:
- It would increase the risk of identifying the family
- The grandmother had a formal right of complaint through the Children Act 1989
- A family member would likely respond “indiscreetly” to press enquiry
- Preventing the naming of the authority It would only be a “minor interference” with the grandmother’s freedom of expression
- There had been no findings made against the local authority, and it said adverse publicity “would run the risk of making retention and recruitment of social workers more difficult and, therefore, of damaging the service provided for children in the area”
- It was not necessary for the local authority to be named for the grandmother to successfully make her point.
However, representatives from the press argued that it was incumbent on the local authority to make a case against publishing its name, rather than it be a case the journalists must make.
Wildblood was also told by those opposing the local authority’s position that the case for the risk of jigsaw identification was made “without analysis of fact or research”.
“The reality is that, in the immediate locality of the grandmother, it will be easy for those who know the family to identify it even on the basis of the anonymised statement; the identification of the local authority will add nothing to that.
“The further reality is that, amongst the grandmother’s close friends and family, her story will already be apparent,” Wildblood said.
He added that naming the council would not enable people living in other parts of the local authority area, or those in other parts of the country, to identify the family.
Wildblood was also told that there was a local community interest in knowing about how the local authority was performing.
Wildblood concluded: “In my opinion the arguments in favour of naming the local authority are overwhelming. I do not think that the local authority has got anywhere near justifying the non-disclosure of its identity.”
He clarified in the judgment he was not setting out precedent or guidance through his judgment, as it contained “no new point of law or principle”.
Neelam Bhardwaja, interim improvement and operations director at Gloucestershire County Council, said: “The council’s only motivation has been to protect this child’s right to privacy.
“Our concerns are also shared by the child’s independent representative – the voice of the child in court. We know that taking responsibility for a young child is a huge decision and can be very stressful. We acted with integrity and kindness towards everyone involved in this case, as well as providing financial support including paying for some independent legal advice. The council would like to go into more detail on the issues raised as we did in court, but we don’t believe this is in the best interests of the child. Also, the judge made it very clear that he was not commenting on these issues, but on what information could be reported by the media.
“We feel confident this child has the loving and committed family they need and we support the special guardianship arrangements.”