Supreme Court: Articles 3, 6 and 8 ECHR in child protection PII case

There have been a number of important privacy judgments in recent weeks, particularly concerning Article 8 ECHR in cases with child protection elements. I have blogged on two Court of Appeal judgments. In the matter of X and Y (Children) [2012] EWCA Civ 1500 (19 November 2012) (Pill, Touslon and Monby LJJ; appeal against a decision of Peter Jackson J in the Family Division) concerned the tension between Articles 8 and 10. A second, more recent Court of Appeal judgment in Durham County Council v Dunn [2012] EWCA Civ 1654 (13 December 2012) (Maurice Kay, Munby and Tomlinson LJJ; appeal against a decision of HHJ Armitage QC) focused on balancing competing rights under Articles 8 (private and family life) and 6 (fair trial).

The Supreme Court has this week handed down an important judgment of the latter variety (Articles 8 and 6, as well as an Article 3 claim) in Re A (A Child) [2012] UKSC 60 (12 December 2012) (Lady Hale, with whom Lords Neuberger, Clarke, Wilson and Reed agreed;  appeal against a decision of McFarlane, Thorpe and Hallett LJJ).

Lady Hale began by summarising the case thus:

“We are asked in this case to reconcile the irreconcilable. On the one hand, there is the interest of a vulnerable young woman (X) who made an allegation in confidence to the authorities that while she was a child she had been seriously sexually abused by the father of a little girl (A) who is now aged 10. On the other hand we have the interests of that little girl, her mother (M) and her father (F), in having that allegation properly investigated and tested. These interests are not only private to the people involved. There are also public interests, on the one hand, in maintaining the confidentiality of this kind of communication, and, on the other, in the fair and open conduct of legal disputes. On both sides there is a public interest in protecting both children and vulnerable young adults from the risk of harm.”

In essence, X made the allegations of past sexual abuse by F to the local authority, but did not wish to take action against F. She asserted her rightsto privacy and confidentiality under Article 8  and argued that disclosure of her identity and the details of her allegations would amount to inhuman or degrading treatment contrary to Article 3.

The local authority asserted public interest immunity from disclosure. Lady Hale held that, analysed in terms of common law principles, disclosure should be ordrerd despite the important public interest in preserving the confidence of people who come forward with allegations of child abuse. At paragraph 30, she said this:

“Those allegations have to be properly investigated and tested so that A can either be protected from any risk of harm which her father may present to her or can resume her normal relationship with him. That simply cannot be done without disclosing to the parents and to the Children’s Guardian the identity of X and the detail and history of the allegations which she has made.”

The same conclusion was reached by analysing the matter in Convention terms. X’s case was primarily based on Article 3. Lady Hale agreed with the Court of Appeal that disclosure would not violate those rights: “The context here is not only that the state is acting in support of some important public interests; it is also that X is currently under the specialist care of a consultant physician and a consultant psychiatrist, who will no doubt do their utmost to mitigate any further suffering which disclosure may cause her” (paragraph 32).

Leaving aside Article 3, Lady Hale concluded that the rights of C, M and F under Articles 8 and 6 outweighed the Article 8 rights of X in the circumstances. A closed procedure seeking to minimise the impact on X’s privacy was not possible here. Furthermore, disclosure would not automatically expose X to the trauma of cross-examination: medical evidence and other means of giving evidence could, for example, be appropriate.

The case is an illuminating instance of extremely strong privacy rights being trumped by a combination of the family life rights of others, and in particular their right to a fair trial. In particular, it illustrates how, when serious allegations are made against individuals, the notion of privacy can cut both ways.

Robin Hopkins