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Listening devices stitched into girl's clothes, court told

Published 23/05/2016

The judge heard a girl was wearing clothes which had covert listening devices sewn into them
The judge heard a girl was wearing clothes which had covert listening devices sewn into them

A girl at the centre of a family court dispute between her separated parents had bugs sewn into her clothes so that her father could listen to what she said at meetings with a social worker, a judge heard.

Her father's new partner stitched recording devices measuring about three centimetres by one-and-a-half centimetres into her school blazer and raincoat, Mr Justice Peter Jackson was told.

Detail of the covert recordings has emerged in a ruling by the judge, who is based in the Family Division of the High Court in London.

The judge did not give the girl's age but said she was in the "later stages of primary school".

He said the youngster did not know that she had been bugged.

The girl's mother had described what happened as "really disturbing".

Mr Justice Jackson said the bugging had "serious consequences" for the family.

The judge gave little detail of the underlying dispute between the parents in a written ruling - and he did not identify anyone involved.

He said the girl had been living with her father.

He had been asked to decide whether she should stay with her father or move to live with her mother.

He had decided that she should move to live with her mother.

Mr Justice Jackson said the dispute was "bad enough" for local authority social services staff to become involved and for him to appoint a guardian who could represent the interests of the girl.

"All in all, the proceedings ran for 18 months and during that time there were a number of meetings between (the girl) and her social worker, a family support worker and the guardian," said the judge.

"Unfortunately, the father and his partner were determined to know what the child was saying at these meetings and also to record what the professionals were saying.

"As a result they embarked on a plan of action."

Mr Justice Jackson said at least four recording devices had been used by the father and his partner.

He said the father had produced transcripts of 16 conversations running to more than 100 pages

All but one of those involved the girl.

A significant number of recordings had not been transcribed or produced, said the judge.

"The first recording was made in November 2014, the last in March 2016," said Mr Justice Jackson.

"The proceedings had been on-going for well over a year before the existence of the recordings was revealed.

"At least four devices were used.

"At least two of these were small recording devices (bluntly, bugs - the one I was shown was no larger than 3 x 1.5 cm and can be bought on the internet for a few pounds).

"The other devices were iPhones or iPads belonging to the father and his partner."

Mr Justice Jackson added: "The bugs were bought by the partner.

"She sewed them into to a false bottom to the breast pocket of (the girl's) school blazer.

"On some occasions a second bug was sewn into (her) school raincoat and used at the same time to maximise the chance of picking up conversations.

"On a day when a meeting was happening, the partner sewed the bug(s) into(the girl's) clothing just before she left for school - any earlier and the battery would have run out by the time a meeting took place at the end of the school day.

"The bug would therefore be running all day, recording everything that (she) did.

"(The girl) was therefore recorded at school, when with her teachers and friends, and at the contact centre when she went to meet her mother or speak to her on FaceTime.

"Recordings were also made at home, when the social workers and guardian visited.

"At the end of the day, the bug(s) would be removed from the clothing so the contents could be downloaded.

"The partner would make transcripts of what she and the father regarded as relevant conversations."

Mr Justice Jackson went on: "Other conversations were recorded by the father using his iPhone as a recording device.

"He would leave it running in the breast pocket of his shirt or hold it, apparently innocently, in his hand.

"At other times, when professionals were visiting the home, the father or his partner would leave an iPad or iPhone running in the top of the partner's handbag in the room where the conversation was likely to occur.

"In February 2016, the father attended a pre-proceedings meeting with the social workers. They challenged him about his recently revealed use of recordings and he turned his phone off. He did not tell them that he had a second device running, with which he continued to record the meeting.

"Importantly, the father and his partner state that (the girl) has never been aware that she has been bugged."

Mr Justice Jackson said it was almost always likely to be wrong for a recording device to be placed on a child for the purpose of gathering evidence in family court proceedings.

"This should hardly need saying, but nowadays it is all too easy for individuals to record other people without their knowledge. Advances in technology empower anyone with a mobile phone or a tablet to make recordings that would be the envy of yesterday's spies," he said.

"This judgment describes the serious consequences that have arisen for one family after a parent covertly recorded a child in this way."

He added: "The main reason for changing (the girl's) home base was the conclusion that the father and his partner could not meet her emotional needs as main carers.

"The recording programme was not the only indicator of this, but it was a prominent one.

"The mother was entitled to say that she objected to her daughter being brought up by someone who sewed recording devices into her clothing, something she described as 'really disturbing'."

Mr Justice Jackson said the recordings had not produced "a single piece of useful information".

The judge said it had damaged relationships between adults in the girl's life, had shown the father's inability to trust professionals and had created a "secret" that could affect the girl's relationship with her father and his partner.

He said anyone thinking of doing something similar should "think carefully".

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