D. (Married Woman) (Respondent) v National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (Appellants)

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtHouse of Lords
JudgeLord Diplock,The Rt. Hon. Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone,Lord Simon of Glaisdale,Lord Kilbrandon,Lord Edmund-Davies
Judgment Date02 February 1977
Judgment citation (vLex)[1977] UKHL J0202-1

[1977] UKHL J0202-1

House of Lords

Lord Diplock

Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

Lord Kilbrandon

Lord Edmund-Davies

D. (Married Woman)
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

Upon Report from the Appellate Committee, to whom was referred the Cause D (Married Woman) against National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, That the Committee had heard Counsel, as well on Thursday the 25th, Monday the 29th and Tuesday the 30th, days of November last, as on Wednesday the 1st, Thursday the 2d and Monday the 6th, days of December last, upon the Petition and Appeal of The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children of 1 Riding House Street. London, W.1, praying, That the matter of the Order set forth in the Schedule thereto, namely, an Order of Her Majesty's Court of Appeal of the 6th of May 1976, might be reviewed before Her Majesty the Queen, in Her Court of Parliament, and that the said Order might be reversed, varied or altered, and that the Petitioners might have the relief prayed for in the Appeal, or such other relief in the premises as to Her Majesty the Queen in Her Court of Parliament, might seem meet; as also upon the Case of D (Married Woman), lodged in answer to the said Appeal; and due consideration had this day of what was offered on either side in this Cause:

It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in the Court of Parliament of Her Majesty the Queen assembled. That the said Order of Her Majesty's Court of Appeal, of the 6th day of May 1976, complained of in the said Appeal, be, and the same is hereby, Reversed except as to Costs, and that the Judgment of the Honourable Mr. Justice Croom-Johnson of the 27th day of June 1975, thereby set aside, be, and the same is hereby, Restored except as to Costs: And it is further Ordered, That the Respondent do pay, or cause to be paid, to the said Appellants the Costs incurred by them in respect of the said Appeal to this House, the amount thereof to be certified by the Clerk of the Parliaments: And it is also further Ordered, That the Cause be, and the same is hereby, remitted back to the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice, to do therein as shall be just and consistent with this Judgment.

Lord Diplock

My Lords,


In form this is an interlocutory appeal upon a summons relating to the discovery of documents by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (N.S.P.C.C.) in a pending action brought against them by the respondent (Mrs. D.). In substance, the question for your Lordships is whether the N.S.P.C.C. can be compelled in legal proceedings to disclose the identity of persons who give them information that a child is being ill-treated or neglected.


The N.S.P.C.C. is a voluntary society founded in 1889 and incorporated by Royal Charter in 1895. Its purposes are: —

1. To prevent the public and private wrongs of children, and the corruption of their morals;

2. To take action for the enforcement of laws for their protection;

3. To provide and maintain an organisation for the above objects;

4. To do all other such lawful things as are incidental or conducive to the attainment of the above objects.


Action for the enforcement of laws for the protection of children may take two forms:

  • ( a) The prosecution of offenders for criminal offences against children, and

  • ( b) The institution of care proceedings in a juvenile court under section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1969.


That section authorises a juvenile court to make a variety of different Orders for the protection of children or young persons who are being ill-treated or neglected. By subsection (1) care proceedings may only be brought by a local authority, a constable or an "authorised person". By the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 (Authorisation for the purposes of section 1) Order 1970, the N.S.P.C.C. is the only authorised person under the Act. It had also been an authorised person for the purposes of taking proceedings under the corresponding section, section 62 of the previous statute of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.


Although empowered to bring care proceedings, neither constables nor the N.S.P.C.C. are under any statutory duty to do so. In this respect their position differs from that of a local authority. By section 2(2) where it appears to a local authority that there are grounds for bringing care proceedings in respect of a child who resides or is found in their area it is the duty of that authority to bring such proceedings unless they are satisfied that it is neither in the child's interest or the public interest to do so, or that some other person is about to do so or to charge him with an offence. By section 2(3) constables and the N.S.P.C.C. are required to give notice to the local authority before beginning care proceedings themselves.


The detailed events which gave rise to the action brought by Mrs. D. against the N.S.P.C.C. are vividly recounted in the judgment of the Master of the Rolls as reported at [1976] 3 W.L.R. 124, to which reference may be made. For present purposes it is sufficient to summarise them as follows: —


In the afternoon of 13th December, 1973, somebody told the N.S.P.C.C. that the 14-month old daughter of Mrs. D. had been beaten and ill treated over the past six weeks. On receipt of this information an inspector of the N.S.P.C.C. called upon Mrs. D. at her home in order to see the condition of the child. The information turned out to be untrue. The child showed no signs of ill-treatment. She was healthy and well-cared for.


Mrs. D. was naturally very upset by this visit and to learn of the false accusation against her. As a result of this her health was affected. She wanted to know the name of the N.S.P.C.C.'s informant; but this was refused. After an unsuccessful attempt under Order 24, Rule 7(a) to obtain discovery of documents from the N.S.P.C.C. before commencing any proceedings, she issued a writ and statement of claim on 19th June, 1974, claiming relief of two different kinds against the N.S.P.C.C.

  • ( a) Damages for failure to exercise reasonable care in investigating the complaint that had been made about her child before repeating it to her; and

  • ( b) An order that the N.S.P.C.C. disclose to her all documents in their custody, possession or power relating to the complaint and the identity of the complainant.


The particulars of negligence included an allegation that the N.S.P.C.C.:

"failed to make or cause to be made any or any proper sufficient inquiries of the complainant having regard to the identity and/or status and/or means of knowledge of the complainant and/or the nature and/or substance of the complaint in order to check that the complaint was made bona fide and not maliciously, before visiting the Plaintiff."


At the present stage of the proceedings your Lordships are not concerned with the question whether the statement of claim discloses a good cause of action on the part of the plaintiff against the N.S.P.C.C. for damages for breach of duty or for negligence. That is a matter which will fall to be decided at the trial of the action, if it ever comes to trial. The present appeal must be disposed of on the basis that the facts pleaded in the statement of claim, if true, do constitute a good cause of action; and accordingly that any documents which disclose the identity of the person who gave the false information relate to matters in question in the action and are prima facie subject to disclosure under Order 24, Rule 1(1).


On the 26th September, 1974, the N.S.P.C.C. took out a summons under Order 24 (Rule 2(5)) for an order that there should be no discovery by the defendants of documents where such documents reveal or are capable of revealing the identity of the N.S.P.C.C.'s informant.


On 11th December, 1974, Master Jacob dismissed this application. He ordered discovery and inspection in the usual form. On 26th June, 1975, Mr. Justice Croom-Johnson allowed an appeal from Master Jacob's order and ordered that there should be no discovery or inspection of documents by the defendants where or to the extent that such documents reveal or are capable of revealing the identity of the N.S.P.C.C.'s informant. From this order Mrs. D., with leave of the judge, appealed to the Court of Appeal. On 6th May, 1975, the Court of Appeal by a majority, Lord Denning M.R. dissenting, allowed the appeal and reinstated the Master's order for discovery.


Before this House the claim of the N.S.P.C.C. to refuse discovery of documents which could reveal the identity of their informant was based squarely upon the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of information given to the Society so that it may take steps to promote the welfare of a child, whether, as happens in the great majority of cases, by giving support, advice and guidance to the family of which the child is a member or, if this be necessary in the interest of the child, by instituting care proceedings in respect of him or prosecuting those who have committed offences against him.


To assist them to carry out the purposes of their charter and their functions as a person authorised to take care proceedings under S.l. of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, the N.S.P.C.C. invite the help of the general public in telling the Society's officers of any child of whom they know who may be suffering because of misfortune, ignorance, neglect or ill-treatment. The leaflets, which the Society distributes widely to enlist the public's aid, contain the promise "Your name and the information you give for the purpose of helping children will be treated as confidential." The uncontradicted evidence of the Director of the N.S.P.C.C. is that the work of the Society is dependent upon its receiving prompt...

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