On 1st (and 13th) February the High Court heard Olly Sheridan’s case again. Ellie Yarrow disappeared with Olly (aged 3) in the middle of family court proceedings about the arrangements for his care. We wrote about the background here and here.
Ellie and Olly are still missing some 7 months on, despite extensive efforts to trace them, including photographs of Olly and his parents released in a publicity campaign though mainstream media. That mainstream media push was followed by a significant social media backlash (See #keeprunningellie).
The press release
It was within this strikingly rare context that on 1st February, Mr Justice Williams took the unusual step of approving a joint press release on behalf of the court, Olly’s maternal relatives and his father, which the Judicial Office then published and even tweeted under a new judicially approved twitter hashtag #comehomeolly, in an attempt to reach and influence Ellie by, first, gaining the trust and goodwill of her maternal relatives and, then, asking them to engage in generating some alternative social media messages.
Attending and applying for permission to report
We were at the hearing on 1st February (though not the 13th), trying to make good use of new (pilot) rights allowing legal bloggers to attend most private family court hearings. We published the press release, released by the judical office and the father’s solicitors, and tweeted the early press reports that followed.
We hoped to also blog about the approach taken at that hearing if we got permission to publish some of the detail of the evidence and discussions that went on before Mr Justice Williams. In fact we weren’t granted that permission, and are writing instead in more general terms about the hearing (within existing reporting restrictions), the process we adopted to try and get permission, and just how tricky we have found working out how to secure a relaxation of reporting restrictions, as legal bloggers on a par with accredited journalists.
Mainstream press and broadcasters quickly published the story via the Press Association’s in court representative, Brian Farmer. The focus was on the novel use of a tweet and hashtag from the judicial office. See the Evening Standard, and ITV, Sky, BBC News etc. Many other reports followed.
The legal blogging perspective
As legal bloggers, we’re not subject to intense commercial pressures to be ‘first with a scoop’ or to find a hook that will sell copy and make a great headline. We can simply report what we consider to be interesting, or in the public interest (so long as we stay within our charitable objectives, the law on what can be published and any particular reporting restrictions applied to the individual case).
The Judge’s approach
We were struck by the judge’s dedicated and humane approach, to trying to allay fears and misunderstanding in the hope of a constructive outcome for Olly.
The fact that a joint press release was achieved at all in such circumstances seemed to us testament to Mr Justice Williams’ (day long) efforts to genuinely engage with Ellie’s fears (gleaned both from her long letter circulating openly on social media and through engaging with her maternal relatives). Testament also to the capacity and willingness of those relatives and Olly’s father (through his lawyers), to then respond to Mr Justice Williams, to seek out common ground and to focus intensely on the stark alternatives for Olly of a childhood spent on the run, or of those left behind finding a way to enable his mother to feel ‘safe’ enough to bring him home.
We realized that it was this aspect of the in court goings-on that we would wish to tell interested readers about, and that in order to do so we would require permission to report beyond even the terms of the new jointly agreed press release.
We hoped that (if permitted), we might share more detail of what we felt the judge wanted Ellie to know at this crucial juncture, including about how certain aspects of the law and procedure must operate in the family court. Particularly given her maternal relatives were unrepresented, and given that there is no published judgment as an authoritative public source of information. We also thought that some of what was said might have resonance for other parents out there grappling with fear, a jungle of information and misinformation about the family courts, and worries about what to do if things don’t seem to be going well in their cases.
What actually happened
We felt welcome and assisted at every step by Mr Justice Williams’ usher, and Mr Justice Williams himself could not have been clearer in treating our attendance as a right, tempered by responsibilities to adhere to reporting restrictions.
No one objected to our attendance in or outside of court. We spoke briefly to the unrepresented family members before court commenced to make sure they understood our presence, the reporting rules that bound us, and their right to object if they thought they had good reason. In fact, they told us they welcomed our presence and understood our interest was solely in the provision of accurate and balanced information to the public to the extent the court permitted.
But we weren’t asked if we wanted to apply for any relaxation of the reporting restrictions and we struggled to work out how and when to raise this ourselves. Unbound by commercial interests or fear of undermining the principle of freedom of speech, we were content to offer draft copy in advance of publication – something unthinkable for a journalist. We’d canvassed this (positively) with the father’s legal representatives over lunch, which seemed a good start, but somehow still found ourselves, at the end of an intense, day-long hearing, outside of usual court hours, wondering whether and how to even raise it.
In the end we jumped in (in a rather ‘un-lawyerly’) manner at the very end, to flag our wish to report beyond the press release terms on the process itself, the research, etc. and suggesting we email Mr Justice Williams afterwards with the detail.
We then emailed the judge with our draft copy (copying in all those who were before the judge from the outset). The response we received was from the judicial office, who replied as if we had asked the judge for guidance on what s.12 covered and whether our copy was publishable, whereas we had wanted permission to publish, by means of a s12 relaxation. Finally, once we’d clarified, Mr Justice Williams explained that permission wasn’t granted (which we entirely accept). For us this illustrates the practical difficulties associated with either journalists or bloggers who want (in the public interest) to report information beyond the automatic restrictions of s12 – clearly here some wires were crossed as a result of us trying not to be too intrusive.
A few things from our earlier draft blog that we can still say
A problem-solving approach
At worst, the quasi-adversarial nature of court proceedings can compound already existing mistrust and disagreement within families, to the detriment of the children in the middle – and no doubt not all cases benefit from the level of skill and judicial attention that we witnessed this case receiving, following Olly’s disappearance. However, at this hearing the judge’s whole approach in corralling and marshalling those present through a supportive and problem-solving approach, focused on the subject child, was humane, skillful, refreshing and welcome. We think it is important that the public get to hear about the ways in which family judges can and do respond to seemingly impossible situations – and we would like to have been able to back up our impressions with specific examples of what took place.
The impact on children of being on the run/ in hiding
We think it’s important also to flag research about the long term impact on children of growing up on the run or in hiding, including on their mental health. Obvious impacts for children like Olly include not being able to be in school or nursery, or to access GP’s; not being able to use their own names or those of family members; growing up without loved relatives, and separated from friends, routines and unable to life a ‘normal’ life.
Where do we go from here? Public trust, misinformation and the role of social media
It does seem to us that it can be a bit too easy to re-tweet and ‘like’ #keeprunningellie (in what may well be genuine sympathy for the family’s plight), without thinking about the impact of such tweets or what a childhood spent in flight truly means for children and their families. The apparent focus of most social media support is on the perceived truthfulness of Ellie’s allegations or the perceived failures of the family courts generally. Meanwhile, Olly and his mother (and others like them) will be living those consequences, practically and emotionally, every day. We hope that Olly’s mother does not feel under any pressure, to sacrifice what is actually best for her own son and herself to the agendas of others.
However constructive the hearing on 1st February (though apparently unsuccessful so far), we also think there are important questions to ask, not just about whether the family courts are consistently following guidance on how they should deal with allegations of abuse, but also on what can or should be done to address the growing problem of vulnerable parents finding social media advice (that is sometimes ill-informed), more attractive, more plausible and more accessible than any available legal advice, which is more likely to be realistic and tailored to the facts of their case.
Reports yesterday say the judge was told at a further hearing on Wednesday that Ellie and Olly still haven’t returned.
It’s really hard to know how to apply to relax reporting restrictions to give meaningful effect to the new pilot rights beyond passive attendance or simply describing the process of legal blogging, in the absence of formal procedural rules or guidance on doing so. This is a dilemma that journalists have been telling us about for quite some time.