Anonymity vital to protect child defendants from ‘virtual lynching mob’, says Shauneen Lambe

Shauneen LambeIn 1993, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were convicted of murdering the toddler James Bulger when they were both age 10. Once they had been found guilty, the anonymity they had been granted during the trial was lifted by the judge and their names and faces were made public. Both boys were subsequently given new identities, to protect them from threats of violence and, it was hoped, allow them the chance to be rehabilitated. In 2001, as they were turning 18, the media applied to reveal their new identities. As a result, Venables and Thompson’s lawyers began proceedings in the family courts to ask for them to have the protection of anonymity for life.

The evidence presented to the court included what their solicitors believed to be credible threats of violence and death against them both. Their families had also faced threats and been forced to move several times. Venable’s younger siblings had been made wards of court to ensure their identities were protected. In granting the pair lifetime injunctions of anonymity, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss stated: ‘Although the crime of these two young men was especially heinous, they did not thereby forfeit their rights under English law and under the Convention on Human rights.’

In 2010 in Edlington in Doncaster, two brothers aged 11 and 12 were charged with attempting to murder two other children. They had marched the children to wasteland, before subjecting them to a prolonged and brutal attack. When they were convicted the judge was asked to overturn the reporting restrictions in place. He refused stating: ‘I recognise, of course, that the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what took place… but understanding what A and B did, or why they did it, or what effect it had on their victims…is not affected one way or another by A and B’s anonymity being maintained or their identities becoming known.’

With the recent conviction of the killers of Angela Wrightson, we have again been confronted with desperately cruel acts committed by children, this time in Hartlepool. As with the Edlington case and the killing of James Bulger, some members of the public have responded not just with horror but fury, threatening to mete out violence to the young perpetrators. Wittingly or otherwise, the media has provided platforms for people to express their fury. The original trial of the two 13-year-old girls had to be halted in 2015 due to a series of ‘vile’ comments posted on Facebook, and the websites of a number of mainstream media organisations. The comments were described by the prosecution in the case as a ‘virtual lynching mob’.

Balancing rights
The criteria for granting anonymity or imposing reporting restrictions in court vary, depending upon the area of law and, in criminal proceedings, whether they are victims or witnesses or defendants, but the overarching principles remain unchanged. The court has to balance different rights under the European Convention of Human Rights: Article 10 Freedom of Expression, versus Article 8 Right to Privacy and a Family Life. In the three cases mentioned above, the judges also had to take into account Article 2 Right to Life and Article 3 Protection from Torture, because of the very real threats faced by the child defendants and their families.

As well as the Human Rights Act, children have the additional protection of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UNCRC was ratified by the UK in 1991 and specifically protects the privacy of children, at any stage in criminal proceedings. This is, according to the convention, to promote ‘the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society’.

At the sentencing of the two girls convicted of killing Angela Wrightson, the media again made applications to lift reporting restrictions. The application was opposed by their lawyers, Hartlepool Local Authority and the police. Similar arguments were raised by the media as those raised 15 years ago in Venables and Thompson. But 15 years on we are in a post-Leveson age, following the public inquiry into recognised, unethical practices in the media.

As Lord Leveson said in his report:

‘There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected…in each case, the impact has been real and, in some cases, devastating.’

The media rightly points out that it is not journalists calling for vigilantism or inciting violence. However, press stories about Venables and Thompson continue to fuel a climate where their lives would be in danger if their new identities were revealed; and, in the Wrightson case, reports about the first trial on newspaper websites attracted violent comments from readers – so much so that the hearing had to be abandoned and a press gagging order imposed on the subsequent trial.

In ruling that the girls convicted of Wrightson’s murder should remain anonymous, the judge was influenced by the repeated attempts by one of the young defendants to take her life during the course of the trial. He was, he said, ‘concerned and disturbed by what I regard as a heightened real risk that identification followed by a press blitz will elevate the risk to your life to such an extent there would be a real and immediate threat to your life’.

With the media’s appetite for shocking stories always likely to outweigh its concerns for the welfare of child defendants, it remains up to the courts to act as the rational decision makers. Lawyers involved in youth justice work should make sure they present all available arguments to the courts about why the privacy of children – whatever they have done – needs to be protected.

About Shauneen Lambe

Shauneen is executive director Just for Kids Law. She is a barrister and helped establish the charity Reprieve

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