Some of my readers may have been puzzled last week to see such lurid headlines as “Racehorse trainer lied that her ex was a child molester”, over stories about Vicky Haigh, who has featured several times in this column. They were prompted by an unprecedented broadside launched by Lord Justice Wall, head of the Family Courts division, against Miss Haigh – who, as I have reported here, escaped to Ireland in April to pre-empt her newborn baby being seized by Nottinghamshire social workers. However, the case in which Lord Justice Wall broke all legal precedent by identifying Miss Haigh in such damning terms was not the one I have reported here. It centres instead on her daughter by a previous partner, which has long been the subject of a highly contentious case involving Doncaster social workers.
The reason for Wall deciding to break all the normal rules of secrecy surrounding child care cases was that for months, details of this case had been advertised on the internet by a private investigator, Liz Watson. Last Monday, at Doncaster’s behest, Wall decided to bring matters to a head. He ruled that the parties to the case could for once be named and that papers relating to it, including two earlier court judgments, should in due course be published. He then sentenced Miss Watson to nine months in prison for breach of secrecy rules.
Relying on the findings of the two lower courts, Wall stated that Miss Haigh had coached her daughter into making lengthy statements to the police and social workers that she had been abused by her father. There is obviously much about this case that still cannot be reported, but at least Wall’s ruling will give the public a chance to decide whether the assessment of the evidence by the earlier judges seemed persuasive.They will also be able to judge whether Wall was right to state that there was not “a scintllla of evidence” to support the arguments which the lower courts rejected.
Wall has something of a track record in making such unqualified statements. In 2008, in another case, he was complained about to the judicial ombudsman by John Hemming MP, after he had witheringly dismissed Hemming’s arguments that a crucial document in the case was forged. “I find it not only unacceptable but shocking,” Wall ruled, “that a man in Mr Hemming’s position should feel able to make so serious an allegation without any evidence to support it. In my judgment it is irresponsible and an abuse of his position.”
Mr Hemming presented the ombudsman with several pages of transcript showing how he had produced lengthy evidence for his claim, set out in meticulous detail. Rather than stating that he had not had “any evidence”, it would have been more accurate for Wall simply to state that, having considered it, he had not found the evidence convincing.
I too recently felt the lash of Wall’s tongue, when he rushed to endorse the criticisms of me by a family judge for the “inaccuracy” of my reporting on another unhappy family case. Wall was so eager to defend the system over which he presides that he seemed unaware of the fact that the judge who criticised me had been forced to come back the following day to correct three errors in the two points he had made about me.
When judges have such power to make their own rules about what can and cannot be reported, it places a special responsibility on them to be rather more measured in their language than they sometimes allow themselves to be.
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