Details of family law case published to counter misinformation


A recent judgment handed down in England has wider application, writes CAROL COULTER

THE PRESIDENT of the family division of the high court of England and Wales has just ruled that extensive information concerning a family law dispute, including the names of the two parents in the case, be published. Sir Nicholas Wall did so to counter misinformation about the case being broadcast on the internet.

The case was taken by Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, which sought the publication of information about the case following a campaign of misinformation on the internet and in e-mails sent by the mother and a group of her supporters.

The misinformation, centring on the unfounded claim that the father had sexually abused their child, was circulated among parents in the child’s school and to the father’s employer and threatened the welfare of the child, who was living with her father.

The case was brought by the council against Victoria Haigh, with her former husband, David Tune, as second respondent. The child, who was represented by her children’s guardian, was known only as X.

The child is now almost eight years old and is living with her father, though formally under the care of the local authority following a number of legal proceedings arising from the separation of her parents and a subsequent custody battle.

The couple, both of whom had been successful sportspeople, married in 2003 and had a daughter. However, they separated in 2005 when Mr Tune left the family home. Initially he had extensive contact with his daughter, but in the spring of 2006 Ms Haigh stopped the contact taking place.

Despite a number of court orders seeking to reinstate contact, she continued to resist this and at one court hearing assaulted the father.

At that hearing she also made the first allegation against him of sexual assault of their daughter to Doncaster social services, and suspended contact. A number of such allegations followed, each of which was investigated by the social services, and each of them resulting in the suspension of contact or its taking place only under supervision.

After many investigations, including four medical examinations of the child, the case came before the family court, where Judge Robertshaw found Ms Haigh had coached her daughter into repeating the allegations she had first made. He said these allegations were false, made to obstruct contact between the child and her father.

He ruled the child should live with her grandmother and have contact with both parents, warning the court might ultimately have to rule she lived with the parent who would permit contact with the other parent. The mother did not appeal this ruling.

In a subsequent hearing about where the child should live, before Judge Jones, the judge ordered a full psychological assessment of Ms Haigh and found she had continued to seek to manipulate her daughter and place her own needs as the priority. He ruled it would be contrary to X’s best interests for her to live with her mother as she would suffer psychological harm in her care, and ruled she should live with her father.

He also recorded his impression that Ms Haigh needed “professional help”. Social services considered it was still very important for the child to have contact with her mother, but that in the circumstances this could only take place with a social worker present.

Ms Haigh rejected this and decided she would not see her daughter at all in these circumstances, despite the fact the child had expressed a wish to see her mother.

All these proceedings had taken place in private, in accordance with English law on child care cases.

Ms Haigh’s attention then turned towards a media and internet-based campaign. According to the president’s judgment, “She recruited a number of individuals to assist her in that campaign and there is much information on the internet about X which is in breach of the injunctive remedies the court has put in place in its concern to protect X’s privacy.”

The mother then e-mailed the school with a document styled as a letter to X in which she said: “I am famous again darling, but this time it is not because I am a model or racehorse trainer . . . I have been in over 7 newspapers and I am going to be doing television programmes very soon.”

She also contacted her former husband’s employers through the company’s website and through the personal Facebook accounts of members of staff, alleging Mr Tune was a paedophile and a rapist, and also alleging a conspiracy among the courts, the police, all the professionals in the case and the judiciary.

Sir Nicholas described as “most disturbing” the fact Ms Haigh had caused profound difficulties for the child at her school. Most of the parents of the children there were aware of the allegations on the internet, and they had been e-mailed by the mother. The school told the court attempting to protect the child from this had caused difficulties of “monumental proportions”.

“The extracts from X’s police interviews contain the false allegations,” Sir Nicholas said. “There are those who will read it for their own sexual gratification, victimising X in the process. The mother seems to be entirely unable to understand or empathise with the consequences to X of these actions.

“Such is the extent of the false, unauthorised and tendentious material now placed in the public domain that the local authority, who would otherwise be striving to protect the privacy of X, have concluded that the balance has shifted and that in this particular case, X’s best interest is served by the true facts being made available,” he said.

He therefore ruled that an extensive account of the facts, summarised above, be published.

While this is an English case, given the nature of the internet, it is only a matter of time before a similar case arises in Ireland.

The full case is on BAILII Citation Number: [2011] EWHC B 16 (Fam)