Romana Canneti: Shining a light into darkness at the Court of Protection

The media should be allowed to act as the eyes and ears of the public
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The Independent Online

Consider these five cases: it is proposed that a famous performer be prevented "for his own good" from continuing with his career; a woman in her sixties is refused access to her sister; a mother is denied contact, even by phone, with her son; an autistic adult is unlawfully removed from his father's care at home; a man is deprived of his liberty and denied contact with his former foster parents...

These are all real stories, featuring real people, whose outcomes the courts have had the difficult task of deciding. But until this paper's long battle to prise open the doors of the Court of Protection (CoP) began, you would not have read them in this – or any – newspaper. In 2009 a group of media organisations led by The Independent won the right to attend a CoP hearing for the first time. The case, which set an important legal precedent, concerned Derek Paravicini, the world famous blind and autistic performer.

The CoP had often been described as "secretive", a word which makes the professionals in the field wince. The reasons behind this "secrecy" (which professionals call "privacy") are understandable. The CoP makes difficult decisions about the welfare of adults lacking "mental capacity". Why should intimate details of a person's life be aired in public, say the professionals, just because they are "vulnerable" and unable to object to unwarranted publicity?

Against this, The Independent and supporting media organisations have argued: anonymised court reporting – as in other "sensitive" cases – protects privacy. It can only be a good thing to shine a light on the agonising decisions faced by judges. The media should be allowed to act as the eyes and ears of the public; the principle of "open justice" should extend to these sensitive cases.

To their credit, time and again, senior judges have agreed, and we have "won" every application we have made, including twice in the Court of Appeal. The problem is the expenditure of time and resources each time The Independent publishes a CoP "story". The judges are broadly in favour of transparency. So, often, are families caught up in disputes with the authorities over the care of vulnerable relatives. Steven Neary is a young autistic man found to have been unlawfully deprived of his liberty by Hillingdon Council. His father has credited the media coverage of his case for Steven's return home.

It has been hard for The Independent to keep the faith, and to continue to devote resources to costly court applications to attend hearings when there is no guarantee of a "story". But our persistence has been rewarded by a slow but definite sea change in attitudes. That this persistence has put The Independent's Jerome Taylor on the shortlist for tomorrow's Paul Foot award for campaigning journalism is gratifying. But the fight is not won until the CoP, like the family courts, automatically allows reporters in.