Finding children via the media

Roger Pearson looks at the basic procedures to follow when applying for reporting restrictions to be lifted in child abduction cases.

At least three cases reached the High Court Family Division last month in which reporting restrictions were lifted in respect of abducted children allowing media coverage.

Mr Justice Stuart-White, Mr Justice Sumner and Judge Calman lifted reporting restrictions in all cases. Different lawyers were involved, all with different levels of information, and each case was presided over by different judges. Procedures followed in such cases tend to vary considerably as well as the level of information available.

However, there are guidelines which can be followed to help publicity achieve the most effective results, though not all practitioners are aware of them.

Family law specialists, Alison Hayes of Mishcon de Reya and barrister Henry Setright of 1 Gray's Inn Square have been closely involved in a number of these cases over the years. Their experience therefore forms a useful blueprint for any practitioner faced with the dilemma of whether to and when to seek publicity and how to go about it.

The primary principle in all children's cases is that hearings and applications are private. The presumption must be that publicity is likely to be intrusive and quite possibly detrimental to the interests of children. It is the last resort when all other steps that can be taken to locate a missing child have failed.

Publicity applications are usually made before High Court judges and must be carefully planned. Judges need to know the reason for the application and why alternatives can no longer be pursued. They need assurance that publicity will not be detrimental to the child or the process of its recovery.

Once a judge is satisfied that publicity is appropriate, s/he can assist in securing maximum media coverage. If a full history and any factors which might make the missing child particularly interesting to the press are given the judge can strengthen the publicity plea by calling reporters into chambers, outlining the situation in words that can be reported by media.

Timing is critical. If publicity is to achieve maximum affect it must coincide with deadlines for national and local newspapers, TV and radio. It is also essential that maximum information is available to back up a publicity application.

Good colour photos are vital and the press needs an "angle". Stories about missing children are competing for column inches and air time.

One very important factor must be remembered in such cases. After a child has been found, publicity has served its purpose. Information made available to the press cannot be called back despite the fact that the purpose of the order has effectively ceased.

This consideration must form an important part of the balancing exercise carried out by a practitioner seeking such publicity.