Pregnant woman threatened with prison for breach of gagging order

By Andy McSmith
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:32

Parliament is being urged to intervene in the case of a heavily pregnant woman who was threatened with prison for naming her local council during a public meeting in the House of Commons.

The woman is subject to a sweeping family court order which makes it an offence to identify her, or the council involved, or any council staff involved, or to say what the case is about. It makes it illegal for her to seek publicity for the case, or for anyone else to approach her for information about it.

It is an example of the kind of gagging order which family courts have the power to issue, to protect the vulnerable, but there are fears that they can also be used as a convenient device for local officials who do not want controversial decisions to be subjected to public scrutiny.

They are distinct from the injunctions increasingly obtained by wealthy or famous men – and nearly all are men – who do not want the media publicising their sexual peccadilloes or information that may harm their businesses.

The increasing use of injunctions prompted David Cameron to say this week that he has become worried that judges, rather then Parliament, are creating a privacy law. John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP who has been campaigning against the spread of gagging orders, said yesterday he has referred the woman's case to the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, because of the questions it raises about free speech. "I have referred this issue to Mr Speaker for a reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee," he said yesterday.

He also plans to use parliamentary privilege to reveal the name of the local authority when Parliament returns after Easter.

Three weeks ago, Mr Hemming chaired a meeting in the Commons to discuss whether there is too much secrecy around family courts and courts of protection, to which the public were invited. Guest speakers included Anthony Douglas, head of the Court and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) which protects the interests of children in family court cases.

During the meeting, the woman, who was in the audience, spoke about her own experience, referring to a council and a social worker by name. Two weeks later, she received a summons to appear at the Royal Courts of Justice.

The message implied that she faced prison, though she learnt when she arrived in court that the council was not seeking to have her locked up. In the meantime, she had consulted a solicitor and engaged a barrister, leaving her with a legal bill of around £10,000.

Although she is notallowed to talk about the case itself, the woman described to The Independent yesterday what happened after her visit to the Commons. "I had been encouraged by different people to speak to MPs after I had had no joy with the council complaints procedures, so I thought 'there's an MP and the head of CAFCASS in the same room' – that's why I went," she said.

"When I got the summons I was shocked. I only found out at a quarter to seven on Monday that on Wednesday morning I had to appear in court in London. I live hours away by car and I'm nearly eight months pregnant, but I got there. I thought it was sensible to attend. I didn't know what I had done wrong. I was totally shocked that it was to do with a meeting in Parliament."

Mr Hemming, who is collecting information on injunctions to present to the Commons Justice Committee, sees the case as a striking example that the courts, rather than MPs, are making decisions about privacy and free speech.

"With the judges acting to reduce freedom of speech it becomes even more important to protect freedom of speech in Parliament," he said yesterday. "Citizens should be allowed to raise problems with MPs. The names of the local authority and the mother have to remain unspoken because of injunctions. But it is my intention to reveal this using parliamentary privilege when Parliament reconvenes next week. People need to know what is being done in their name. The truth must come out."