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

Judicially Reviewing the Information Rights Tribunal

The Supreme Court today handed down its long-awaited (at least by some) judgment in R (Cart) v The Upper Tribunal [2011] UKSC 28. The case concerns the circumstances in which the ordinary courts will entertain an application to judicially review a decision of the First-Tier or Upper Tribunals. Although the case did not directly involve a challenge to the Information Rights division of the Tribunals, the judgment is of general application.

The Upper Tribunal is a “superior court of record” by virtue of section 3(5) of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. Under section 13, there is a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal from the Upper Tribunal, subject to permission being granted by either body, unless the decision falls within the category of excluded decisions. The most generally relevant excluded decision is a refusal of permission to appeal from the First-Tier Tribunal to the Upper Tribunal by the Upper Tribunal. Where permission is refused that is, in the eyes of the 2007 Act structure, the end of the line. Unless one can judicially review the decision to refuse permission.

The Divisional Court roundly rejected the argument that the designation of the Upper Tribunal as a superior court of record rendered it immune from judicial review ([2009] EWHC 3052 (Admin); [2010] 2 WLR 1012) and the absolutist position was not resurrected on appeal. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Divisional Court that judicial review should be available only in circumscribed cases ([2010] EWCA Civ 859; [2011] 2 WLR 36). The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the appeal, but for different reasons.

The leading judgment of the Supreme Court was given by Lady Hale, with whom the rest of their Lordships more or less completely agreed, albeit in their own words. Rejecting the application of an unrestricted judical review jurisdiction over all decisions in the Tribunal structure, and the application of an exceptional circumstances test limited to an excess of jurisdiction and denial of fundamental justice, the Court settled on a more easily described approach. Where an application is made for judicial review of a Tribunal decision the High Court should apply the second appeals criteria, namely that (a) the proposed case would raise some important point of principle or practice, or (b) there is some other compelling reason for the court to hear the case.

It was considered by Lady Hale and the other members of the Court that this test was a proportionate and rational restriction on the availability of judicial review which nonetheless recognised the importance of correcting errors in the Tribunal’s case load. The exceptionality test would have been too narrow, and applying judicial review without limitation would have lead to the courts being swamped with applications in respect of a system designed to make the process easier, quicker and cheaper (especially in the light of its application to immigration and asylum cases).

Interestingly, there were a number of comments from Lady Hale, Lord Phillips, Lord Clarke and Lord Dyson to the effect that the situation would be made clearer by an amendment to the CPR remove the potential four stages of judicial review permission applications in these quasi-second appeal cases. Whether the Rules Committee is paying attention remains to be seen.

The upshot of the decision in Cart is that if the Upper Tribunal refuses permission to appeal to it, that decision can be judicially reviewed, but only on the restrictive second appeals criteria. The tenor of the judgments as a whole do not provide much appetite for leave to be readily granted, and in both cases under appeal the Supreme Court roundly rejected their compliance with the second appeal test.

For those reading north of the border, the Supreme Court applied the same approach to the Tribunal structure in Scotland in Eba v Advocate General for Scotland [2011] UKSC 29.