Bristol City Council spent £23,000 in bid to stop reporting
BRISTOL City Council spent more than £23,000 of taxpayers' money on an attempt to ban the press from reporting details of a controversial fostering case.
The Post reported in January that an adoption case heard at Bristol's Family Proceedings Court revealed how it took two weeks for social services to remove a four-year-old girl from a foster family, despite the foster father being under suspicion of possessing indecent images of children.
Without warning the media, on the final day of the case, the council went to the civil court to get an injunction banning any reporting of the case.
The family court already had automatic reporting restrictions in place to protect the identity of those involved in the case but the ban on naming the girl would have been relaxed when proceedings finished.
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The Sun newspaper was intending to publish a story and the issue of reporting restrictions ended up going all the way to the High Court in London.
There, Mr Justice Baker ruled that it was in the public interest for the story to be published but that the identities of the girl, her family and foster family should all be protected. He ruled that the name of the council and the social workers involved and details of the case, which had been covered by the injunction obtained by the council, could be published.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, The Post asked the council how much money it had spent on getting and defending the injunction.
A response on behalf of legal services director Liam Nevin said the total "external cost" was £23,528.40, which does not include the hours council employees spent on it.
That bill included £11,730 for legal advice, preparation and representation by Robin Tolson QC for two High Court hearings in London and one in Bristol. The council also paid the legal costs for the foster family, which came to £3,623.40
A council spokesman said: "The object throughout was only to protect the identity of the child. It is important to realise that automatic reporting restrictions in respect of children subject to care proceedings do not last once the proceedings have ended. This is an area of law that is not well understood and has recently been clarified in the higher courts.
"This means that once the final order was made on October 10, there was nothing to stop the press from naming the child. The council did not think that this was in the child's best interests and, as the press were already involved and had attended some of the hearings in relation to the care application, we considered that we had no option but to seek to protect the identity of the child beyond the care proceedings. That was why we had to make the application on the same day as the proceedings ended."
Mr Nevin said in the FoI response: "The decision was taken that it was appropriate for Bristol City Council to meet the reasonable legal costs necessary for the foster carer to protect her family's privacy."
Mr Nevin confirmed that 165 hours of legal time was spent on the case when the press reporting was a "live issue" but that figure also included time spent on an appeal within the care proceedings, which was going on at the same time. The council's employed in-house legal team, which also did work, does not charge.
The bill from Mr Tolson included the cost of legal advice which the council said was not "directly attributable" to any of the injunction hearings but included in the overall costs of the case.
The girl in question had been living with foster carers for three months when police informed social services her foster father was suspected of having accessed images of child sex abuse before she lived there. The girl also said she had been physically assaulted by another person in the house.
Social workers waited six days before deciding what to do and another week before removing the girl and another child from the house.
Social worker Sherilyn Pritchard told magistrates at the adoption hearing that there was "not enough information to justify immediate removal" of the girl when the allegations arose.
The foster father reportedly committed suicide soon after police began investigating him.
Magistrates who heard the case said the council had not followed child protection procedures following the alleged assault.
They said: "These matters concern us greatly and we believe should be thoroughly and forensically investigated and reviewed in an independent forum."
No disciplinary action has been taken against anyone from social services following the council's internal review. An independent review has not yet been published.