BBC v Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, X and Y
Reference:  EWHC 2862 (Fam);  EMLR 117
Court: Family Division
Judge: Ryder J
Date of judgment: 8 Dec 2005
Summary: Privacy - Anonymity - Social workers - Family proceedings - Injunction to restrain identification - Article 8, ECHR - Freedom of expression - Article 10, ECHR
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Adam Wolanski KC (Respondent)
Instructing Solicitors: BBC Legal department; Rochdale MBC Legal Service for X; Thomsons for Y
The BBC intended to identify social workers involved in a case of alleged child abuse in Rochdale in 1991. In the 1991 wardship case the Judge held that the two social workers carried out interviews with the children at the centre of the case incompetently but did not name them. Several of the children, as adults, waived their privacy and gave interviews to the BBC for a documentary and wanted to name the social workers in question and show footage of the interviews. The council applied for an injunction to restrain the BBC from identifying the social workers on the basis that they and their families would be harmed personally and professionally and they had a reasonable expectation of privacy arising out of their anonymisation in 1991. They also argued that problems of recruitment of social workers in child protection cases would be exacerbated by the naming of experts in such cases.
Whether continuing protection should be afforded to two social workers, X and Y, whose identities were not revealed in the open court judgment that concluded the original wardship proceedings in 1991.
Applying the balancing exercise in Re S and Campbell v MGN, dismissing the application:
(1) There was nothing inherently confidential or constituting an abnormal physical threat to the social workers that justified interference with the Article 10 rights of the former wards and the BBC;
(2) The evidence served in support of the social workers’ Article 8 claim did not convincingly establish a pressing social need for the restraint asked for;
(3) Interference with the social workers’ Article 8 rights was legitimate and proportionate, given the public interest in the proceedings and in openness in family proceedings generally.
(4) There was no longer any interest of a particular child or children generally in retaining the anonymity of the social workers.
The court made clear that the balancing exercise between privacy and freedom of expression may be revisited, in fresh circumstances and after a long period of time, to the extent that a previous balance that favoured privacy rights should not give rise to a reasonable expectation of privacy indefinitely. This case is further recognition of a trend towards openness in the Family Division. Importantly, the judge held that experts involved in Family Division cases could not “normally” expect privacy, even where identification risked exacerbating recruitment problems in the field.