Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Secret court is told to open its doors after probe by the MoS

By Jason Lewis, Mail On Sunday Whitehall Editor
Last updated at 10:04 PM on 14th November 2009

The Court of Protection

Secretive: The Court of Protection in north London

The secretive Court of Protection - which controls the finances of some of Britain's most vulnerable people - has been ordered to open its proceedings to media scrutiny.

The court, already facing an internal review after nearly 4,000 complaints in just two years, has been told that it can no longer hold all its hearings in private. The move comes after a Mail on Sunday investigation highlighted widespread concerns about the way the court is run.

A test case last week ruled that the court should allow the media to attend one of its private hearings, which govern the money and care of people suffering from dementia and others lacking mental capacity. This is set to open the way for reporting of many more of the court's previously secret cases.

The public will still be barred from the court in North London but the media will be allowed to attend the hearing as they showed they can provide 'good reason' to do so.

The case was brought by lawyers for Associated Newspapers, publishers of The Mail on Sunday, and other newspaper groups.

The landmark decision by High Court judge Mr Justice Hedley comes following a legal case to decide the control of the affairs of an 'internationally famous' disabled man.

The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was described in court as a young adult 'who is severely disabled, resulting in severe learning difficulties which render him incapable of making decisions as to any significant issue in his life'.

The Court of Protection is involved because, the judge said, 'he is and is likely to remain dependent on others for his care and he is currently cared for in accommodation provided by a national charity.

'However, he also possesses remarkable gifts and the practice of those have brought him to public, indeed international, attention.'

Cases in the Court of Protection, set up two years ago, had, until now, been heard in private and reporting of most of its rulings are banned.

MoS front page

Campaign: The Mail on Sunday's front page headline

But last week Mr Justice Hedley ordered that the media could report details of the case after the hearing, including the identity and background of the disabled but gifted individual, but some information about his finances should remain secret.

Alastair Pitblado, the Official Solicitor who acts for people who cannot make their own decisions, said that he would go to the Court of Appeal in his client's best interests.

He added: 'The rules [for the Court of Protection] were recently made by Parliament and the default position is privacy.'

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has ordered a judge to review the workings of the court after The Mail on Sunday revealed the problems faced by the families of those put under its protection.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, which oversees the court, said: 'We have always said that it is open to the Press to make an application to attend the Court of Protection on a case-by-case basis, and this is what has happened.'