Monday, 31 January 2011

Should suspects be named in the media ... and other matters

The first arrest in connection with the murder of Joanna Yeates was that of the former teacher Mr Chris Jefferies.  His arrest and detention became the focus of media attention and he undoubtedly suffered from some abysmal journalism.  Subsequently, Mr Jefferies was NOT charged.  The Attorney-General did not act against the media - ( Contempt of Court Act 1981 ) -  though he reminded the media about the need for responsible reporting.  It would be contempt of court for media reports of criminal proceedings to be such that they create a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.  Criminal proceedings are "active" for this purpose once a person is arrested without warrant. 

In June 2010 the Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill received its first reading in the House of Commons and a second reading is scheduled for 4th February 2011.  This is a private member's bill introduced (well before the Yeates case) by Anna Soubry MP but it looks as if Kenneth Clarke (Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor) and Dominic Grieve (Attorney-General) are now lending the bill their support.  If it becomes law then we, the public, would not know who has been arrested for questioning by the Police.  People would "disappear" for a time whilst questioning takes place.  Naturally, that would save suspects a lot of embarrassment arising from irresponsible media behaviour but perhaps the proper answer to this lies in the Attorney being bolder using his powers under the 1981 Act to take action against irresponsible reporting?

Opposition to the Public Bodies Bill continues.  The latest media report relates to the intended sale of some 638,000 acres of forest.  See The Guardian 30th January.   Law and Lawyers looked at the Public Bodies Bill here and here.  The coalition government has also been having difficulties in the House of Lords with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (here) - The Guardian 31st January.  Aspects of this Bill are seen as politically damaging to the Labour Party.

Employment Tribunals - (Law and Lawyers here) - continue to be in the news since Mr Vince Cable announced plans for reforms - The Guardian 27th January.   The "Of Interest to Lawyers" blog is taking a particular interest in this matter - see their posts here and here.  The crucial reform seems to be that an employee will have to work a 2 year qualifying period before being entitled to bring an unfair dismissal claim.  The present period is 12 months.  It is also planned to
introduce a fee system for commencing a case; to have a compulsory first-stage mediation process and to move toward more tribunal cases being heard by the judge sitting alone without the "lay members."  The latter seems to work against the concept of the tribunal process with the mix of lawyer and lay members.  After all, it is supposedly the "lay members" who have knowledge of business from the perspective of employers and workers.  The government argues that these reforms are needed to encourage employers to take on workers and to reduce the costs of the tribunal system which is seen as costly and time-consuming.

See the Department for Business Innovation and Skills for the employment tribunals consulation paper.  The consultation runs until 20th April 2011.  Pertinent observations about the consultation may be seen at  "The Friendly Employment Lawyer" - "Government Consultation and Employment Tribunal Reform - Resolving Workplace Disputes - Public Consultation."

The government's Department for Business Innovation and Skills has published an Employer's Charter - here.  According to an article by Keith Ewing (Professor of Public Law King's College, London) this charter is an unnecessaraily nasty intiative.  The U.K. has been found by the Council of Europe's Social Rights Committee to be in breach of 13 out of 16 obligations toward employees which ought to apply under the European Social Charter of 1961 which the U.K. ratified in 1962.  The U.K.'s situation vis-a-vis the Charter may be seen here.

Last but by no means least for this rather cool and gloomy end of January Monday morning, the Supreme Court has recently given judgment in the very important case of Yemshaw v London Borough of Hounslow [2011] UKSC 3 - judgment and press summary.  The case turned on the meaning of "domestic violence" in the Housing Act 1996 s.177 which deals with whether it is reasonable for a person to continue to occupy accommodation in which the person is subjected to domestic violence.  Was domestic violence to be confined, as Hounslow Council argued, to merely the physical.  No said the Supreme Court.   This is an excellent outcome for those who live in abusive relationships since, if they do leave the accommodation, they will not be regarded as having made themselves homeless intentionally.  This is a fortunate outcome since a stark contrast is now avoided between the treatment of abuse for housing purposes with the treatment of abuse for child care purposes.  Under the Children Act 1989 s31 "significant harm" to a child means "ill-treatment" or the impairment of health or development including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another.  The words "ill-treatment" are said to include sexual abuse and forms of ill-treatment which are not physical.   This important case is discussed further on the UK Human Rights blog - here and here.  [Note: the Court of Appeal had considered itself bound by its own earlier decision in Danesh v Royal Borough of Kensington 2006.  The Supreme Court is not bound by decisions of any other UK court and may "depart" from its own decisions].  See Solicitor's Journal 26th January - "Domestic Violence includes psychological abuse: Supreme Court rules."

Addendum 6th February 2011:  Anna Soubry's Witness (Anonymity) Bill has failed to secure government support.  The Bill has been withdrawn.  See The Media Briefing 5th February and Head of Legal.  


  1. Which would you rather: that your friend suddenly vanishes without explanation, or that you know he's been arrested, so that if he doesn't reappear reasonably soon you can start things moving to help him?

    The problem is the reporters, not police openness.

  2. I think that I prefer the system as it is with the media able to report. The Attorney needs to be more robust in taking irresponsible reporting to task. I dislike cloaks of secrecy however "well-intentioned." Now that this Bill seems to be getting some support from politicians with greater "clout" it might stand a better chance of becoming law.

  3. Is Chris Jefferies still on police bail? I've seen no press reports about it, and there's nothing on the Bristol police website.

  4. Interesting comment from RogerBW, but expressed in somewhat melodramatic terms. AS I understand it, and I do not know what is in the Bill as yet, an arrested person will not be held incommunicado, they will retain all of their present rights - including those under PACE. What will be lost is the right of the press to ruin an innocent man's life by rampant innuendo, fueled by police information passed to favoured journalists for a few pounds on the QT. To safeguard against 'vanishing', the right to anonymity should be renouncable by the accused. Incidentally, the Christopher Jefferies case is the amongst the most egregious such cases, but is by no means the only one. Furthermore, this Bill will raise further questions about the invidious position of those accused of rape, whose accuser has the benefit of anonymity even through a trial.

  5. It is not clear whether Mr Jefferies remains on bail. Now that they have charged Vincent Tabak - (who did not apply for bail in the Crown Court) - public interest in Jefferies seems to have evaporated. In my view the Police ought to let the public know just what the position is re Mr Jefferies.

    This is one reason why I am tending to dislike this anonymity bill. Once that is in force we would get to know nothing at all about people like Mr Jefferies and we would not be in a position to even raise the question whether or not he remains on bail and, if so, why.

    I agree with Anonymous that the bill - (link provided in the post) - does not remove any other PACE rights of suspects - e.g. the right to have someone informed when arrested (PACE s.56) and access to legal advice (s.58) etc.

    The problem here is the reporting which, quite frankly vilified Mr Jefferies and may well have amounted to contempt of court. I am of the view that the Attorney ought to have brought proceedings. Perhaps (I don't know) he thought that the media had remained with the bounds of permissibility. If that is right then the better solution would be, I submit, to amend the Contempt of Court Act 1981 rather than take yet another step toward secret criminal process.

  6. Further on the Anonymity Bill - it seeks to prevent the publication of the name, address and picture of a person arrested. The Bill provides for certain exceptions - e.g. where publication might assist the investigation - but only where a Crown Court Judge allows the exception.

  7. so presumably the Bill would allow the old routine of "the police have arrested a 57 year old man", but would prevent news outlets from naming the individual?