Freelance journalist loses latest round of litigation over access to social services family court file

A freelance journalist who wants to examine a file of evidence relating to a girl who was at the centre of private family court proceedings has lost another round of a legal fight.

Melanie Newman asked for permission to examine documents produced by council social services staff.

A High Court judge ruled against Ms Newman in August, and Court of Appeal judges have now dismissed her challenge to that ruling.

Mrs Justice Roberts, who considered the application at a hearing in the Family Division of the High Court in London last year, refused to allow “wholesale disclosure” of a court file.

But she said Ms Newman should be entitled to see “limited aspects” of material in the file.

Three appeal judges, who had considered the case at a recent Court of Appeal hearing, upheld Mrs Justice Roberts’ ruling on Thursday.

Journalists covering private family court hearings are not normally given access to court files and Ms Newman’s application is thought to be the first of its kind.

Social services bosses at Southampton City Council (pictured) had raised concerns about the girl’s care and the case has been considered by family court judges in Southampton and Portsmouth, Hampshire.

Court of Appeal judges had also overseen hearings and written rulings have been published online.

A judge in Southampton had ruled that the girl should be placed for adoption.

Appeal judges over-ruled that decision after the girl’s mother mounted a challenge.

Ms Newman said a child was nearly taken from a “perfectly proper” parent and she hoped to write an “in-depth report” on the case.

She said the published rulings “alone” did not provide “sufficient insight” into the case to allow her to write an in-depth report.

Ms Newman only asked to be allowed to read documentation and would need to make a further application if she wanted to report any of the material in the file.

The girl’s mother had given her consent to disclosure.

Mrs Justice Roberts said she had not decided “matters of general principle” but carried out a “fact-specific exercise” which had involved balancing the competing rights of everyone involved.

Appeal judges said Mrs Justice Roberts had carried out a “balancing test” with “meticulous care”.

They say she had made no “error of law”.

“In my judgment, what Ms Newman seeks is beyond anything that either the guidance or authorities have to date had in mind. Ms Newman seeks to embark upon what has been referred to as an ‘archaeological dig’,” said one appeal judge, Lady Justice King.

“She wishes to trawl through thousands of highly confidential documents, many of which refer in detail to the most intimate medical and psychological details of this child’s life, in order to see if something turns up.”

Lady Justice King added: “Ms Newman is not seeking to push the boundaries of transparency in the family courts by way of a better understanding of the court process, or of the hearings which took place… or even particularly to hold the judge or the family justice system to account.

“Ms Newman seeks to delve beyond the court proceedings themselves.”

She said the case “served to emphasise” the need for the development of guidance in order to “assist courts in dealing with these difficult issues”.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2021, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Southampton City Council.