Secret court open to public gaze after <i>Independent</i> campaign

Dispute over guardianship of autistic piano virtuoso makes legal history

By Cahal Milmo,Chief Reporter
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:34

A dispute over the guardianship of a severely autistic piano virtuoso on the brink of a potentially lucrative music career became the first case to be heard in public yesterday in a hitherto closed corner of the British justice system.

The previously secret workings of the Court of Protection, which oversees cases involving vulnerable people – from Alzheimer's sufferers to brain-damaged soldiers – who cannot manage their own affairs, were opened to the media following a legal challenge by The Independent.

In the august and wood-panelled surroundings of Court 43 of the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, Mr Justice Hedley made legal history by presiding over a public hearing in which he decided the family of musician Derek Paravicini should be given sole responsibility for overseeing his finances and welfare.

The 30-year-old pianist, who is a nephew by marriage to the Duchess of Cornwall, is blind and has severe learning difficulties as a result of complications following his premature birth. But he is also an extraordinarily talented musician whose ability to instantly remember the most complex melodies has led to him being dubbed "the human iPod". His performances have already enraptured sell-out audiences in Britain and America.

Mr Paravicini, whose parents have been approached by a leading American music agent about developing his career, was at the centre of an argument between his family and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who run the Surrey residential home where he lives with 24-hour care.

Mr Paravicini's parents, Nicolas, 70, a retired City banker, and Mary Ann, whose brother Andrew Parker Bowles was the first husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, and his sister Elizabeth, 40, had applied to be appointed "deputies" or court-appointed guardians in charge of seeing to his personal and financial affairs.

Until yesterday, all such cases were heard behind closed doors at the Court of Protection, the last British court where all proceedings are automatically heard in private.

Every year, the court hears about 23,000 cases and has so far taken temporary control of £3.2bn of assets belonging to people judged not to have the mental capacity to make decisions about their own welfare. The system has been criticised for a lack of transparency, giving rise to more than 3,000 complaints in its first 18 months of operation and claims that it treated applicants with undue suspicion.

The Independent, supported by other media organisations, last year won a test case, upheld in March this year by the Court of Appeal, granting journalists access to hearings on a case by case basis. The paper argued there was a strong public interest in media access to cases, ensuring that justice is seen to be done. Judges nonetheless retain the power to decide what details, if any, can then be reported to the public.

The case of Mr Paravicini was opened to the media because of his increasing public profile after a series of appearances in recent years, which have seen him perform twice at Downing Street and on American broadcaster CBS's flagship 60 Minutes programme.

In Court 43, Nicolas Paravicini said that he and his family wanted to help Derek realise his passion for music and public performance at a stage in his life where he is in increasing demand from venues around the globe. Previously, nearly all the concerts given by Derek have been without payment but the court heard he was now capable of earning substantial sums.

Describing his son, Mr Paravicini told the court: "Derek's whole life is his music. He is very disabled and he expresses himself and fulfils himself through his music. He can't have enough of it.

"We feel it is terribly important that he is able to fulfil himself through performing. If he can have a career which makes money as well, that is something on top."

Born 14 weeks prematurely with a twin sister who did not survive, Derek was initially given little chance of survival by doctors. His disability means that he cannot read music and has limited verbal skills but he retains, in the words of Mr Justice Hedley, "a remarkable musical talent".

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