The case of little Poppi Worthington, a 1 year old girl who died in 2012, and who the Family Court has ruled was seriously sexually assaulted by her Father shortly before her death, has been much in the news recently. We wrote about Poppi’s case some time ago here.
We thought it would be useful to set out a timeline of what happened when, with a particular focus on the issues of “transparency” – what was published and when, how decisions were made about reporting, publication and anonymity.
12 Dec 12 Poppi dies aged 13 months after a collapse at home.
27 Aug 13 Poppi’s parents arrested.
23 Oct 13 Care proceedings issued regarding surviving siblings.
8 Nov 13 Surviving siblings placed with extended family member.
8 Jan 14 Surviving siblings placed in foster care.
16 Jan 14 “Transparency” Guidance issued by President of Family Division regarding publication of judgments
28 Mar 14 Family Court “fact finding hearing” where Judge hears various medical experts and the parents evidence and concludes that it is more likely than not (i.e. proved for the purposes of the Family Court) that Poppi’s Father seriously sexually assaulted her shortly before her death. See : Cumbria County Council v M and F (Fact-Finding No. 1) EWHC (Fam)  4886.
This judgment “was not published at that time for two reasons: the risk of prejudicing any criminal proceedings in respect of which a charging decision was awaited, and the need to protect these vulnerable children and their mother from public identification at a particularly sensitive stage in the planning for the children’s future.” (see later judgment, published in 2016, below)
April 14 Guidance issued by Chief Coroner with the approval of the President of the Family Division: “Family Court Proceedings – Findings of Fact Admissibility In The Coroner’s Court”. This allows a coroner to introduce as evidence any findings of fact made in family proceedings, a procedure designed to avoid the need to hear the same evidence more than once, save for good reason.
27 Jun 14 Local Authority apply for reporting restriction order
11 July 14 Reporting Restriction Order made – in narrower terms than originally sought
28 July 14 Press granted access to judgment of Mar 14. Judgment deals with reporting restrictions and disclosure of information:  EWHC 2596 (Fam). Judge says on reporting restrictions :
- The local authority’s application was robustly opposed by eight media organisations representing a wide cross-section of the serious print and broadcast media. Essentially they argued that what was being asked for was far too wide.
- I comment on two aspects of the matter.
- The first is that none of the parties within the family proceedings presented their arguments in a timely fashion. By an earlier order, I allowed for the application to be made and served in accordance with the Practice Direction, and for the arguments of the parties to be in the hands of the media in advance. As it happened, the parties’ submissions were lodged on the eve of the hearing and even on the morning itself. So late were the documents that the arguments of the media arrived before those of the parties. I remedied this by making a provisional ruling and allowing the media the final word about the scope and drafting of the order before it came into effect. This led to a productive dialogue and an agreed draft reflecting my overall ruling.
- The other issue concerns the breadth of the order originally sought. It would have had the effect of concealing for the next 15 years the names of any of the family members, including the child that died and any of the agencies concerned and the geographical area in which the events occurred. The eventual order protects the children and some, but not all, family members. It has a much narrower geographical focus and as a result conceals the identity of one agency only.
- In presenting its application, the local authority indicated that it was asking for the widest restrictions on the basis that the court could cut back on its request. That scatter-gun approach is inappropriate in applications of this kind. It is the responsibility of any applicant, particularly if it is a public authority, to analyse the need for restrictions and only to seek those that can reasonably be justified. [my emphasis]
There was also an application for disclosure of documents to lawyers for various media organisations, and the judge said this :
(1) The media lawyers need to know the nature of the court’s findings to allow them to consider the justification for the continuing reporting restrictions on an informed basis.
(2) This is particularly so in the case where the conduct of public agencies is under scrutiny.
(3) I do not anticipate any harm or unfairness coming to the parties to the proceedings or to any agencies as a result of this limited, controlled disclosure. The conditions I shall impose will effectively prevent any leaking of the information beyond legal advisers.
(4) This can reassure family members and eliminate any risk of prejudice to other proceedings.
(5) Delaying a decision until these proceedings are concluded will achieve nothing, and would create expense and delay while the media was put in the picture at that point.
(6) The Schedule of Failings is a detailed document from a single source, the Children’s Guardian. It is not necessary or appropriate for this to be disclosed to the media at this time. All the necessary information is in the judgment.
(1) Before disclosure takes place, a senior legal adviser in each of the seven participating media organisations must give this written undertaking to the court:
(i) That the copy of the judgment that they will receive will be kept in a secure place within the legal department. It will not be photocopied, e-mailed or put into any electronic form.
(ii) That the judgment is to be read only by legal advisers for the purpose of considering whether to make any application in relation to the reporting restriction order or other issues concerning disclosure of information from the proceedings.
(iii) That it is understood that it will be a contempt of court giving rise to criminal penalties if this undertaking is breached.
(2) Upon receiving the undertakings from the relevant individual at each organisation, the judgment will be sent electronically by my clerk to each of those specific individuals. The lawyer at the relevant organisation can confirm that the electronic copy will be deleted, once a copy has been printed and that they will only save a hard copy of the document, in the terms set out above at paragraph 21(1)(i).
7 Oct 14 Care orders made regarding surviving children
21 Oct 14 Inquest Findings – Coroner hears not evidence but adopts findings of Family Court, records open verdict, saying Family Court Reporting Restriction Order prevents publication of details.
27 Oct 14 Public statement issued by Judge to explain why a reporting restriction order had been made and why it was not possible to publish the fact-finding judgment at that point. See : Poppi Worthington: Reasons for the current reporting restrictions.
2 Nov 14 our blog about the case.
Dec 14 Police obtain evidence of a Dr Cary.
14 Jan 15 Reporting Restriction Order relaxed : now prohibits the identification of the surviving children or their mother, or their homes, schools or nurseries. It does not prevent the naming of Poppi, or her father, or reporting of the circumstances of her death, provided that any report would not lead to the identification of the surviving children or their mother.
Press statement re reasons for not publishing the judgment at this time.  EWHC 4486 (Fam)
16 March 15 Decision by Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute Poppi’s parents in connection with her death, partly based on expert medical evidence
Mar 30 15 Judgment relating to application for publication of Mar 14 judgment in light of no prosecution decision. It is known by this stage that the Father is about to apply for a rehearing. :  EWHC 918 (Fam). Judge says :
- …it would not be right for the fact-finding judgment to be published now. The court retains control over the question of publication and must give due weight to the public interest, the interests of justice and the interests of the individual parties, not least those of the children concerned. It would be wrong in my view to place in the public domain a judgment that would be likely to receive considerable publicity immediately before taking a decision on the question of whether that judgment should be reviewed. To do so would be unfair to the father and contrary to the welfare of the children.
- I well understand the desire of the media to carry out its role as fully as possible, and the frustration that is felt at the course of events in this case, in particular where one obstacle to publication is removed only to be replaced by another. However, I am clear that a proper balancing of the rights of all concerned leads to the conclusion that the judgment cannot be published yet. In saying this, I repeat my intention that it shall be published when it can be.
7 Apr 15 Application for a re-hearing of the facts in the Family Court based partly on expert medical evidence obtained in criminal investigation, based on evidence of Dr Cary.
23 Apr 15 Father’s application for re-hearing granted.  EWFC 35. Judge says :
“As to the publication of the original judgment, I remain on view that this is not appropriate at this point in time, for the reasons given on 30 March. However, I have expressed a provisional view that it should be published at or around the time that the rehearing begins, rather than it being withheld until that hearing ends. There is a proper public interest in the course that these proceedings, and the other procedures surrounding Poppi’s death, have taken. The media will be able to describe matters more effectively if the original findings can be described at the point when they come under review. I have also raised the possibility of the further hearing taking place in public. I will hear from the parties and the media about these issues at the next directions hearing.”
22 July 15 High Court rules there should be a new inquest due to the approach taken by the Coroner  EWHC 2465 (Admin).
2 Nov 15 Final directions hearing. Judge decides the main part of the 2014 judgment would be published at the outset of the further hearing. The published sections would include a narrative of the events surrounding Poppi’s death, an account of the concerns expressed about the investigations that followed, and a summary of the medical evidence that was then available. The only part of the judgment that was not to be published was the section containing the court’s findings, which would be published following the further hearing. The judge directed that the re-hearing would take place in private but that, subject to any directions given during the course of the hearing, there could be daily news reporting. The judgment at the end of the further hearing would be given in public.
23 Nov 15 Appeal to Court of Appeal regarding the anonymising /which details should be left out of the judgment when published. Appeal allowed in part. Reasons for this have yet to be published.
25 Nov 15 Mar 14 Judgment  EWHC 4886 (Fam) published, in the form approved by the Court of Appeal.
Nov 15 Re-hearing of facts in Family Court – Mar 14 Judgment published at the outset of this hearing
19 Jan 16 Court concludes that original findings, i.e. that Poppi’s Father had sexually assaulted her, must stand. Judgment published : F v Cumbria County Council and M (Fact-Finding No. 2).  EWHC 14 (Fam).
The judgment says this regarding transparency issues :
- My assessment in this case is that the balance shifted from the early stages, when the court’s proceedings had to remain private, to the present time when it is right for much more information to be given. There is a strong public interest in receiving information about the circumstances of Poppi’s death, now that the main obstacles to this happening have been removed. Even so, the children and their mother will be affected by publicity, and require the ongoing protection of the reporting restriction order.
- The ability of the media to report a hearing of this kind on a day-to-day basis is unusual and the arrangements here are probably unprecedented. At the outset, ground rules were discussed and established, as follows:
1. The reporting restriction order made on 11 July 2014 and varied on 14 January 2015 remains in effect. Copies have been provided.
2. The hearing is taking place in private. Accredited media representatives may attend and are asked to sign in on a daily basis.
3. Any media representative who attends will be provided with the full 2014 judgment, the medical reports, the minutes of the experts’ meetings, the schedules of agreement and disagreement and the summary of medical evidence. These documents are for information, to assist with understanding the course of the hearing, and they are not for publication. They can be removed from court but they are to be kept safe and are not to be copied or given to others.
4. The media may report daily on the proceedings on these conditions:
(1) Such reporting is subject to any further directions given by the court concerning what can and cannot be published if an issue arises during the course of the hearing.
(2) Reporting (whether by live reporting, Twitter or otherwise) may not take place until after the court proceedings have concluded on any given day, so that the court has had an opportunity to consider whether any additional directions are required.
(3) Until the publication of the final judgment, nothing is to be reported that might directly or indirectly indicate the findings that the court made in March 2014.
5. The final judgment, when available, will be published. At that point the full 2014 judgment will also be published.
6. Any queries about the ground rules should be addressed to court staff who will consult with the parties and with the court as necessary.
- A copy of these rules was placed in the civil jury box where, as it happens, the media sat during the hearing. On the first two days, eight media representatives attended, with the number reducing on subsequent days. On a few occasions, issues about what could or could not be published were raised by a party or a journalist, and these were easily resolved. The opening of the hearing was extensively reported, with less coverage thereafter.
- I repeat what I said at the outset of the hearing:
“I would like to emphasise that the unusual package of arrangements for this hearing arises from the application of existing law to the exceptionally unusual circumstances of this case. These arrangements do not establish new law or practice in the Family Court and they are not intended to set a precedent for other family cases.”
- I nonetheless record that the conduct of the journalists in court was entirely professional and their presence did not adversely affect the hearing; on the contrary, their attendance may be said to have reflected the seriousness of the occasion. The media’s ability to observe the court going about its work in this particular case, and to report and comment on the outcome and the process, has in my view been a valid exercise.
- Finally, as part of the overall arrangements, this judgment was sent to the parties (but not to the media) a week before publication. This was to give advance notice to family members and to enable the children to be supported.
The case was covered by the Radio 4 Today Programme earlier this week, when it was said by Sir Mark Potter that the reasoning for the decision vis a vis publication were not in the public domain. This does not seem to be quit correct – although it takes some time to track it all down on BAILII the information is all publicly available. What it does not provide is a detailed explanation of the arguments advanced and the reasons for deciding that the child’s father should be named, but having read the judgments it is self evident that it would not have been possible to give a meaningful account of the case without reporting that the alleged perpetrator of the assault was Poppi’s father, perhaps making the anonymisation of his name somewhat pointless. The judge did decline to publish the judgment of the first fact finding whilst it looked as if there was a possibility that the matter might be reheard, but ultimately the March judgment was published in late November at a point when the re-hearing was commencing, meaning it was in the public domain identifying the Father as perpetrator of a sexual assault notwithstanding that the matter was still subject to reconsideration. It was ultimately concluded that the findings should not be disturbed.
The father has not been charged or convicted of any criminal offence.