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TRANSAPRENCY ORDERS- FAMILY LAW-MUNCHAUSEN BY PROXY

The Law Society Gazette has this week reported on Family Division liaison judge Mr Justice Poole having made what is believed to be the first transparency order to permit reporting of a case before the family courts.  Such cases are usually heard in private and prohibiting reporting.

The order concerned a finding of fact hearing expected to run for a number of weeks and follows a pilot scheme being operated in some courts countrywide.  The judgment in the case stated that it is appropriate to adopt the pilot from the hearing’s outset. The transparency order was made before the full hearing and shared with the parties to the case.

The finding of fact hearing involved three separate family law cases issued by local authorities regarding three different families. The cases all concern allegations that the mother in each family ‘fabricated or induced illness’ in children.  The Transparency Orders allow accredited journalists or an authorised legal blogger to report on proceedings with restrictions to protect the identities of the children concerned.

The order includes a condition that no reporting of the proceedings will be permitted until the conclusion of the hearing and ‘perhaps, due to possible criminal proceedings, long after that’. There is also to be included a confidential schedule to the order with the real names of family members, including children, involved.

It is understood that three women have been arrested and a criminal investigation started following the hearing.  Family law cases such as finding of facts are determined in terms of ‘guilt’ on the basis of the case being proven on ‘a balance of probabilities’- whilst criminal cases are tried on the basis of guilt arising only if the case is proven ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’  In many instances evidence obtained in care proceedings at a finding of fact hearing can be used to establish the strength of a criminal case then being brought.

The judge has restricted the documents that reporters are entitled to receive under the transparency order. Permission of the court will be needed to allow access to documents not considered reasonable to be made available without further order.

The Judge recognised that that it was ‘inevitable’ that individuals who were already aware of the families may be able to find out more from reports and when an anonymised judgment is published it may cause ‘a great deal of distress’ to the parties involved. The judge was however of the view that protections provided by s97 of the Children Act 1989 and the transparency order limitations/conditions ‘provide the court with sufficient confidence that reporting may be permitted without creating an unacceptable risk that the children will be harmed by being identified.

In cases involving harm of children emotions always run high and such cases are frequently of interest to the media and the public. One can only hope that those who may have suffered as a consequence of the fabricated or induced illness they may have suffered that the transparency orders will not cause such individuals further harm.   Further reading around the topic of Munchausen by proxy is both fascinating and frightening.

If you need confidential advice about an aspect of Family Law please feel free to call our family law team today on 01543 442100 or email kd@adcocks.com

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