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Monday, 03 December 2018

Campaigner raises concerns over council social services' bid to have man jailed

Written by Brian Farmer

A campaigner has raised concerns after open justice rules were broken when council social services bosses tried to have a man jailed for contempt of court.

Former Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming (pictured) says the case, which was heard in the Family Division of the High Court in London on Wednesday, is "troubling".

He has called on the Judge Gareth Jones, who oversaw the hearing, to publish a ruling and name both the council involved plus the man accused of contempt.

Council lawyers had halted their bid to jail the man, who was alleged to have breached orders relating to his children, after Judge Jones complained of incompetence.

The judge said lawyers representing social services bosses made at least six procedural errors when stating the case against the man.

He said the council had been "incompetent" and described its performance as "poor".

Lawyers said they might make a fresh application, while Judge Jones also said the case had also wrongly been marked on court lists.

Listings contained only a case number and wrongly said the hearing was in private.

The judge said rules meant to ensure journalists, and members of the public, were aware of applications to commit people to prison had not been followed.

Judge Jones said he did not want the name of the man, or the council, to be published in media reports of Wednesday's hearing.

He said the case was sensitive and "extremely serious" and said the identities of the children might emerge if the man and the council were named.

Judicial heads have twice in recent years laid down rules relating to procedures judges must follow when considering applications to commit people to jail for contempt, in a bid to ensure no-one is jailed in secret.

In March 2015 Lord Thomas, the then Lord Chief Justice - and most senior judge in England and Wales - said "open justice" was a "fundamental principle".

He said the general rule was committal hearings were staged in public, orders were made in public and judgments were given in public.

Lord Thomas said a case listing should begin with the words: "for hearing in open court"; should contain the "full name" of the person or body applying for someone to be committed to prison; and should contain the "full name" of the person alleged to be in contempt.

He said if a judge was considering imposing any "derogation from the principle of open justice" media organisations had to be warned - so editors had a chance to raise objections.

"The rules relating to committal applications are crystal clear," said Mr Hemming, who campaigns for improvements in the family justice system.

He added: "They were laid down in 2013 then again in 2015. The logic behind them is simple: people must not be jailed, or face the prospect of being jailed, in secret.

"It's not the first example of the rules being broken - and the idea that a judge can sit in the High Court in London and hear an application to jail someone at what was essentially a secret hearing is troubling.

"Luckily the press found out about this case. Cases like this should make people appreciate the value of a free press and of inquisitive journalists. It makes you wonder how often the rules are broken and no-one knows because a journalist wasn't on hand to find out?

"The judge should do all he can to put right what's gone wrong. He should publish a ruling, or at least an explanation of the case, and name the council which made the application and name the man accused of being in contempt."

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) PA Wire.