We wrote about Christopher Booker’s recent piece : In Britain’s secretive family courts, the lawyers always win, in a blog post :

Just add this one to the pile…

 

We’ve now followed this up with a complaint to The Telegraph via their complaints procedure. We will let you know the outcome. [Update 5 April : Matter now with IPSO – See foot of post for full update].

The complaint is that the article breached the accuracy requirements of the IPSO Editor’s Code, as follows :

 

Christopher Booker’s opinion piece seriously misrepresents the legal framework for payment of lawyers through legal aid in the family courts.

He says :

“One reason why cases can drag on so long and involve so many “bundles” of documents is that parents fighting not to lose their children can have four or more teams of lawyers ranged against them, who can also claim extra payments for the number of documents they bring into court.”

Only in an exceptional case would parents have four teams of lawyers ranged against them (let alone more). A typical case would involve four parties including both parents (local authority, mum, dad, children), of whom usually one, but up to three might be “against” a particular parent. Some cases have more parties, but usually these are additional family members whose cases are aligned to the parents.

It is correct that advocates in these cases get paid an enhanced fee where there are large numbers of documents. These fees reflect the additional work done and are not paid at each hearing. The strictly court controls which documents are included in the bundle by reference to what is relevant to ensure a fair trial. Lawyers cannot include unnecessary documents in the bundle in order to inflate their fee and extend the duration of cases as the article implies.

He also says :

“after awarding the parents damages, the judge added that it was “regrettable” that, because payment of the lawyers’ costs must take precedence, the parents were “unlikely” to receive a penny…why is that, when public money is being handed out in such cases, the lawyers should be at the front of the queue?”

What the article fails to mention is that it is the Legal Aid Agency who recoup these fees from the damages under regulations implemented by Parliament, and the lawyers have no power to stop this. It also fails to mention that the lawyers in this specific case (as in most of the other reported cases of this sort) were making strenuous efforts to find a way around the regulation to ensure that their clients did receive the benefit of the damages award.

The article overall is misleading in that it implies that the conduct and outcome of the case is driven by the financial interests of the lawyers rather than the judge, the rules of court and by the legal aid agency acting on regulations made by Parliament.

We have seen and read your complaints policy and consider this complaint falls within it and under the Editors Code.

Our interest in this case is that we are an educational charity whose aims are to assist the public in better understanding family justice matters. This article is inaccurate and misleading in its description of care cases with a human rights act aspect. Further, a number of our members are practising lawyers with direct experience of such cases, and as such are directly affected by the article.

This complaint is squarely based on the accuracy provisions in the Editors Code and is not an attempt to lobby or argue a point of view. We do not object to Mr Booker holding or expressing negative opinions about the family courts, or as to the obvious injustice done to claimants in these cases who never receive the benefit of the damages awarded them, but we do object to his inaccurate characterisation of how the law operates in this area.

We would have wished to reply to this article by placing a comment on the piece linking to the full judgment so that readers could access it and form their own view but comments are closed. We would respectfully request that a link to the full judgment should be added or that the name of the case should be specified so that inquisitive readers may access it.

The judgment can be found here : http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2017/11.html

It can be cited as : CZ (Human Rights Claim: Costs) [2017] EWFC 11 (16 February 2017) 

As with all complaints that we make regarding inaccurate reporting we intend to publish the details of our complaint and, subject to any objection you raise, would like to publish your response to it on our blog at www. transparencyproject.org.uk.

In other news, our complaint to IPSO about inaccurate reporting of a case involving co-sleeping (but not really about co-sleeping) has been rejected by IPSO.

UPDATE : 18 March 2017 :

On 17 March 2017 our complaint sent the day prior was rejected. The Telegraph say :

Thank you for contacting us about this article. 
The article states only that parents fighting not to lose their children “can [my emphasis] have four or more teams of lawyers ranged against them,” not that this is always the case. You acknowledge that this is correct. 
Likewise, the sentence that you highlight concerning lawyers’ costs is also accurate. The effect of the Legal Aid system as currently formulated is to prioritise the recuperation of legal costs. In circumstances where this reduces or annuls any sums payable to successful litigants, the writer was entitled to characterise the situation as one in which lawyers are “at the front of the queue” and to question its fairness where the sums involved are paid from public funds. 
We therefore see no possible breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice. As a gesture of goodwill, however, we have added a link to the published judgment as you request.
I trust that this is of assistance.
We are actually really rather pleased to have secured a link to an actual judgment in a Booker article, which is pretty unprecedented.
However, we are less than impressed with the response to the substance of our complaint. We think that the words in the article can only be treated as accurate in their most narrow and literal sense. The clear implication of the article read as a whole is that the problem arises from the lawyers rather than the law. This is indisputably inaccurate whatever low opinion you hold of lawyers. We will escalate to IPSO and are monitoring to see whether this literal approach and adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of the code is part of a pattern.
UPDATE, later on 18 March : Complaint to IPSO now submitted. Watch this space…
UPDATE, 5 April : On 3 April our complaint was rejected by IPSO. Today we have escalated our complaint to the IPSO Panel for review. Continue to watch this space…