Lord Justice Wall lays down law on family court privacy

20 September 2011 by

Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council v Watson [2011] EWHC 2376 (Fam) (01 September 2011) – Read judgment

Sir Nicholas Wall, the President of the Family Division, has suspended a nine-month prison sentence for contempt of court given to Elizabeth Watson, a “private investigator” who published online sex abuse allegations which had been rejected by a series of judges.

The case has involved many of the foot soldiers in a bitter and public battle between the family law system and campaigners who say it is corrupt and not fit for purpose. Recognised this, Lord Justice wall used the opportunity to “dispel a number of myths”. First,

Nobody in this country is sent to prison for contempt of court “in secret”


The Family court are frequently accused of acting “in secret”. It needs to be emphasised that courts hearing cases involving children under the Children Act 1989 sit in private to hear evidence because they are democratically authorised to do so by Parliament. They do so to protect the interests and confidentiality of children. The courts thus regard – and I certainly regard – with particular seriousness any breach of a court order designed to protect the identify and confidentiality of a child.


judges believe in the rule of law and in free speech. Every child case involves a balance between the rights enjoyed by everybody to respect for their private and family lives: see Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In each case section 1 of the Children Act 1989, enacted by Parliament, requires the welfare of the child to be paramount; that is more important than anything else.


where a judge makes an order restricting publicity and forbidding the identification of a child, he or she is duty bound to carry out what has been described by the House of Lords as “an intense focus” on the rights of a child and the rights of everybody else to free speech. It will no do harm in this judgment to read in Article 10 of ECHR which, of course, is now part of the English law as enacted by the Human Rights Act 1998…

This is a complex and sad case on its facts, but the way in which the parties and interested parties behaved prompted the robust response. Sir Nicholas took the unusual step of issuing a press release to prevent disinformation in the case in which a mother coached her child into making false allegations of sexual abuse against the father. Judgments were also published in non-anyonmised form – see Doncaster v Haigh and Doncaster v Watson.

The full background to the case, which also sucked in John Hemming MP and the Telegraph journalist Christopher Booker, can be found in blog posts by Carl Gardner (A cautionary lesson: the Vicky Haigh and Liz Watson judgments), the Ministry of Truth, barrister Lucy Reed and the on the Fighting Monsters blog.

Sir Nicholas Wall has not been afraid to criticise the family justice system, but he is now clearly on the offensive against of a particular group of campaigners, John Hemming and Christopher Booker included, who see the entire system – including judges, social workers and expert witnesses – as hopeless and corrupt.

Can any lessons be extracted from this debacle?

First and most obviously, anyone – and in particular journalists and members of parliament – who decides to wade in to a bitter family case must do with the utmost caution. It is questionable how much due diligence John Hemming MP did before he made the mother in this case, who has now been exposed as a liar, a cause célèbre in the super-injunction debate.

Secondly, there is an enormous public interest in publishing judgments online, even in anonymised form. Sir Nicholas is right to emphasise the primary importance of protecting the anonymity of children. He is also right to encourage the use of public judgments as a means of communicating important principles of family justice to the general public. To that end, the Ministry of Justice’s recent proposals on publishing more family court judgments online are, subject to practical considerations about anonymity, a good idea.

Thirdly, anyone who continues to publish damaging allegations against people which have been disproved by a court are at risk of going to prison for contempt. This applies whether or not they believe the system is hopelessly corrupt and even if they change their name and declare “lawful rebellion” against the state.

Now it is up to the press and bloggers to continue to publicise, explain and increase access to rulings. And for MPs and journalists to ensure that they have the full facts before lending their support to emotive campaigns.

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  1. theUKhasbecomeajoke says:

    Sir Nicholas Wall also allows his judges to oversee cases while they are on holiday:


    Sir Nicholas Wall also ruled that the compensation a man received after he lost a leg in a traffic accident should be shared equally with his ex-wife as part of a divorce settlement. The £500,000 was awarded to compensate the poor man for a future life of disability.

    Sir Nicholas Wall ruled that the ex-husband of a millionaires should only pay him £5,000,000 of her £55,000,000 fortune.

    Sir Nicholas Wall also suggested that unmarried couples should have equal rights to property as married couples:

  2. avalon111 says:

    One of the best examples of the ‘secret’ Family Courts in action – that is the Family Court Division of the (English and Welsh) Courts of Justice is of course the famous P,C & S scandal.

    Even though the ECHR found against the British government, the mother in the case still lost her child to Rochdale Local Authority, who had decided to enact a forced adoption order even though they were aware the case was being appealed and had been listed by the ECHR.

    The case was notable in the harassment of the mother, the ‘gagging’ orders applied to her and her family, the use of ‘crank’ or ‘pseudo’ science, the widespread use of non sequitur, the denial of any legal representation (even though a child was to be forcibly removed). Indeed every element of critisism of the ‘secret courts’ that campaigners like to allege and apologists prefer to deny took place in the P,C & S case. Professor Clive Balwin of Bradford University has written numerous peer-reviewed (a concept alien to the family courts) academic papers on the case, examining it through various perspectives and each time it comes out as intensely corrupt.

    A summary of the case with quotes, and a link to the ECHR judgement can be found at;


    Take a guess which judge was responsible for mismanaging the entire embarassing (for British justice) travesty?

    Step forward, Lord Justice Nicolas Wall.

  3. Dick says:

    I am not surprised by Nicholas Wall’s action but he is being extremely disingenuous and dishonest, and would appear not to be able to face up himself to the situation in the Family Courts.

    He knows full well the Family Court for the last 27 years has met behind total secrecy, a situation that came about because of the mega-scandals of the late ’80’s and early ’90’s.

    Also that 300 parents a year were being secretly imprisoned by those under him in the family Court system, as Harriet Harman announced in the House of Commons whilst even she did not know the grounds.

    Lastly this has little to do with the welfare of the child or their rights but everything for covering up the LA’s actions.

    I am surprsied every time this comes up a bevy of barristers who wotk in the Family Courts defend it on their blogs – surely they must have seen these situations?

  4. Julie says:

    Excellently put, Corrupted Mind. I am so pleased you have articulated exactly what I was thinking but could not begin to express, as was so surprised and annoyed by the initial comments, which do not seem to relate to the case at all.
    I am sure I am only one of very many who are grateful to the people who take time to write informative and useful blogs, such as this. They can be, as you say, a great educational resource and stimulate genuine debate, but my heart just sinks when posts are followed by insulting and irrelevant comments.

  5. […] The judgment is astonishingly blunt and in my view spot on. Family Lore covers it here, and the UK Human Rights Blog here. No doubt there are […]

  6. Corrupted Mind says:

    I know, I know. The unwritten law of the internet about not feeding trolls – but the discourse beneath nearly every family law blog posting has become barely tolerable. This is supposed to be a legal blog. Many students and practitioners frequent the site (as well as many bloggers), but how is anyone supposed to “engage in the debate” when the first person that writes a comment on a family piece commences with an accusation of “garbage” – without enunciating what it is that they disagree with or why? The following person ‘contributes’ (in the loosest sense of the word) with the uncorroborated assertions that (a) the courts are ‘secret torture chambers’ where (b) ‘children are stolen’ from parents, followed by another comment which only loosely is related to the original blog post – in that it is addressed to Lord Justice Wall – that broadly rails against a number of facets of the family system. It’s depressing and unhelpful. All the educated comment is being sucked out of the site. It is inconceivable that a human rights blog should have to censor those who contribute to the debate but I would hope that individuals would think before they post.

  7. Adam Wagner says:

    Commenters – I am trying to filter out personally offensive and potentially contemptuous and/or libellous comments. I have edited a few to take out the offending bits.

  8. CS says:

    got to love their objective analysis of the facts.

    by the way the family courts are subject to the Human Rights Act and also it is always possible to refer matters to the ECHR.

    However it is rarely in a child’s interest to have their parents arguing in the press over them. Therefore it is sensible for there to be reporting restrictions.

    This case (including the other Judgment given) merely explains why they are in place. People are rarely objective and reasonable when it comes to such matters. As can be seen by the above posts; everyone that doesn’t agree with them are corrupt and wrong

  9. familoo says:

    Dear Secret Family Court Exposer – is your name also Top Secret? Or are you secretly exposing the family courts?

    Yours confused,

    1. Jenny H says:

      why don’t you tell us all exactly how much money you and now your family have earned at the misfortune of other people’s children? just think, you now feed your children with the money you earn… Wow, how do you find it possible to criticise others?

      1. jonathan says:

        Yes, it’s quite shocking to think that people actually earn a living these days. We should all be public employees with state funded final salary pensions, shouldn’t we?

      2. Jenny H says:

        @ jonathan & familoo

        Guys I can see how you would misinterpret my original comment…
        I / we the general British public does not specifically have any reservations about you earning a living of the misfortune of other people’s children. Feed you own children with the ill-gotten gains. That is your choice.

        Please, please, please stop the pathetic excuses as to why you think the system works? We all know that you would not be as supportive if you were not trying to justify your income.

        Remember the general public views politicians and lawyers (family lawyers in particular) as having the least integrity. Shameless self justification will only lower our perception of you even more.

  10. theUKhasbecomeajoke says:

    Sir Nicholas Wall really has taken leave of his senses!!!

    Hypothetically, if Sir Nicholas Wall (whom is now almost 67) has begun the onset of dementia, exactly what other safeguards has the UK government got in place to protect our children? It most certainly is not Cafcass, because as an organisation Cafcass are batty [edited for offensive comment].

    The amounts of government funding charities like NYAS claim for each case they are involved with, would only highlight a suspicious agenda if they didn’t support the loopy procedures outlined by Sir. Nicholas Wall.

    The previous 25 years of the madness which is the UK family justice system can never be made public! Just imagine the ramifications if it was held to account by the EU court of Human Rights? Crimes against humanity would be an understatement…

    We all know what happens on a daily basis and the detrimental impact it has on our children’s lives. We only need to use the example of the recent UK riots to highlight just how detached children and people in general can be after year of abuse from a misguided, secretive, deluded, corrupt and in just family justice system.

    The only positive we have is this generation of kids now know how to get the required attention, unfortunately we may all be too polite in our vain attempts!!! I should add, I do not support, endorse or even suggest any further riots but if someone else were to, I might be tempted to…

    To Sir Nicholas Wall,

    Send this woman to prison!!! She may be female, but it’s quite possible that she would survive a 6 month sting. She may even learn never to do it again…?

    1. I agree the uk is a joke says:



      If anoyone needs to understand why any of the nation’s youth felt the need to riot, Nicholas Wall’s above comments are a staggering clue.

      He’s out of touch, out of order, out of time and most scary of all out of his mind.

      Why does the European court of human rights intervene? This has been allowed to continue for far too long now.

  11. Secret Family Court Exposer says:

    Norman, I could not have put it better. The only reason these blasted demonic torture chambers that are known as the Secret Family Courts are Top Secret (glad Wall has actually admitted at long last what we all know already, that Parliament has rubber stamped this) is because those evil places are using syndromes invented by American paedophiles to steal children away from good parents for malicious and wicked purposes. The rights of the child are stolen away as soon as their parents are summoned to those evil dens of vice. Those blasted places are performing exactly the same function as the clave trade ships that glided into the docks of Liverpool and Plymouth not so very long ago.

  12. What absolute garbage from God Almighty Sir Nicholas Wall.

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