Belfast Telegraph

Open justice must be protected

Editor's Viewpoint

The publishers of this newspaper have failed to overturn a court ban on revealing the identity of a woman charged with murdering her baby. While we, of course, have to accept the judgment, we nevertheless disagree vehemently with it.

The challenge to the anonymity ruling was based on the desire to uphold the principle of open justice. We recognise the sensitivities of the case – a consultant psychiatrist said that identifying the woman would increase her risk of committing suicide.

What is particularly alarming in the case of the woman charged with murdering her baby is that the identity of a human being who was killed in Belfast may never be known since naming the baby would breach the anonymity order on the mother. This is believed to be the first time in UK and Irish legal history that this consequence could unfold.

Although the judge ruled that the press could report every stage of the proceedings against the woman, that, in our belief, is not upholding freedom of expression. Open justice depends on the public being aware of who was on trial as well as what happened to them. Anonymity runs contrary to that principle. Who cares that someone, somewhere, did something to an unknown person and received a sentence or was acquitted?

Our fear is that this ruling could become a precedent and an incentive for others to attempt to gain anonymity when appearing in the dock for even the most heinous of crimes, such as murder.

In one case, a defendant won an anonymity order because it was argued that naming him in the media would damage his reputation.

Our concern is that there may be a growing tendency in the courts to ban the identity of defendants, sometimes on seemingly tenuous grounds.

The publishers of this newspaper did not take this case lightly, because the circumstances of the charges faced by the woman are tragic. Nevertheless, we felt compelled to do so for the protection of open justice and freedom of expression. And we feel the decision to retain the ban on identifying the woman is a step in the wrong direction.

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