Belfast Telegraph

Principle of open justice in Northern Ireland under threat

By Paul Connolly

The judge's ruling in the case of the mother accused of murdering her own baby in Belfast is disturbing.

There is no doubting this is a sensitive, difficult and indeed traumatic case, but very often such cases make bad law and set poor precedents.

The Belfast Telegraph did not bring it lightly, indeed it did so only after a great amount of thought.

The circumstances are very tragic, although they are far from unique.

On April 29, at the old Bailey in London, Tania Clarence, who is accused of killing her three children at her London home, appeared in court, was 'sectioned' and then transferred to a secure hospital for treatment.

Public trust in the criminal courts is served by the courts being open.

Open justice reassures the public that the system works, and helps prevent misconduct by law enforcement agencies.

It cannot, surely, be right that a baby be killed – murdered according to the charge – and the public be banned from knowing the name of that poor child.

This is the first time in UK or Irish legal history that the public's right to know the identity of a homicide victim has been shut down.

It also cannot be right that a woman should appear in court charged with murdering a baby and the citizens of her own city are banned from knowing her name. Neither of these events has, as far as can be ascertained, ever happened in Britain or Ireland before.

Other jurisdictions adopt a much more robust attitude.

This case, and other recent ones, sets a deeply concerning precedent, although I accept the consequences which have flowed from it were probably unintended at the outset.

Open justice in Northern Ireland is under threat from many sides including defendants, often sex offenders, claiming they will kill themselves if they are named and judges issuing anonymity orders on spurious grounds.

In the past week, a solicitor who appeared in court on a sex charge won an order banning his identification so far on the grounds that media reports will damage his reputation.

It was predicted after a case known as ZY v Higgins, in which a sex offender's name was shielded because he said he was suicidal, that the ruling would open the floodgates.

Those fears could yet turn out to be well founded.

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