Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Anonymity ruling is an error of judgment

Judge Barney McElholm is a colourful character and this newspaper, like many of the general public, admires his penchant for plain speaking and his ability to judiciously combine the letter of the law with common sense. And we can understand his frustration that he will be unable to deal with a case on Monday because the investigating police officer will be involved in G8 security duties. His description of the world leaders' summit as a travelling Eurovision Song Contest which should be held in the middle of a desert brought a wry smile to many.

But we must question his decision in another case. He granted anonymity to three defendants because they could come to the attention of dangerous elements who have shown in the past that they are prepared to maim or kill. This is an obvious reference to vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs who indeed did kill a Londonderry man it claimed was involved in the drugs trade. Judge McElholm has granted anonymity to defendants in drugs cases in the past because of the potential danger to their lives.

But the case in question was not drugs related and this could be a dangerous precedent. This newspaper feels that the question of danger to defendants could be used by virtually every defence lawyer hoping to keep their clients' names out of the public domain. There must be compelling evidence of likely threat before such anonymity can be granted.

The identities of people appearing in court are often well known in their immediate localities, whether they are publicly named or not. During the worst of the Troubles anonymity was rarely granted to defendants whose lives, and those of their immediate relatives, were often under threat from opposing factions. Why should there be greater threats against individuals in today's society.

The old maxim that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done has served the legal system well for a very long time and must be jealously guarded. Judge McElholm, in our opinion, erred in his decision in this case.

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