Law Report: Wardship documents to be disclosed - Re M (Wardship / Disclosure of Documents). Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Balcombe, Lord Justice Leggatt and Sir John Megaw). 31 July 1992

Law Report: Wardship documents to be disclosed: Re M (Wardship: Disclosure of Documents). Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Balcombe, Lord Justice Leggatt and Sir John Megaw). 31 July 1992.

Evidence given in wardship proceedings could be disclosed for the purpose of other legal proceedings where the public interest in its confidentiality was outweighed by both the public interest in the administration of justice and, most importantly, the interests of the child itself.

The Court of Appeal dismissed Leeds City Council's appeal from Mr Justice Hollis who, on 31 January 1992, confirmed an order by District Judge Hebbert, granting the applicants leave to disclose documents concerning the wardship of their son M.

Now 18, M was made a ward of court in 1986 and taken into council care following allegations of child abuse backed by evidence from social workers, teachers and doctors employed either by the council or by Leeds Area Health Authority. In 1989 he was returned to his family.

The applicants sought leave to disclose documents from the wardship proceedings for the purpose of a potential claim for damages for negligence against the council, the health authority and a consultant paediatrician.

Without leave such disclosure would be a contempt of court. The council opposed the application mainly on the ground of confidentiality.

Shaun Spencer QC, and James Goss (Leeds City Solicitors) for the council; James Wadsworth QC, and Julian Picton (McAra & Co, Leeds) for the applicants.

LORD JUSTICE BALCOMBE said the principles applicable to the disclosure of material used in proceedings relating to children were as follows:

(1) The interests of the child concerned would always be the most important factor, since it was to protect those interests that the court imposed the curtain of privacy.

(2) Where the child was still a minor, the court would have to decide where its interests lay, although the older the child the more relevant were its own views and wishes.

(3) Where the child had attained majority, he or she alone (unless mentally incompetent) was entitled to decide what were his or her interests.

(4) If, as was usually the case, the material was to be disclosed for use in other proceedings, the public interest in the administration of justice required that all relevant information should be available for use in those proceedings.

(5) If information used in child proceedings had been obtained on an express assurance of confidentiality, that must also be a very relevant factor.

(6) Where no such express assurance had been given, persons who gave evidence in child proceedings might normally assume that their evidence would remain confidential, but they should not assume it would remain so in all circumstances.

In the present case the judge erred in failing to consider the applicants' chances of success in the proposed litigation: if the claim was bound to fail it was hard to see how it could be in the child's interests to pursue it.

He also erred in taking into account the facts that the health authority voluntarily disclosed all its own records and that the Official Solicitor did not oppose the application, both of which were irrelevant.

But, in exercising afresh the court's discretion, his Lordship could not say that the claim was bound to fail and it was in the public interest for all relevant information to be made available.