A “vague” court order has been blamed for the conviction of two Sussex newspaper editors who appeared in court accused of contravening a Section 39 anonymity order.
Two editors, Simon Bradshaw of The Argus and David Briffet, formerly of the West Sussex County Times, were wrongly convicted by magistrates in March of breaking a non-identification order made under section 39 of the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act.
Articles in both south coast papers carried a High Court case where the boy involved had successfully challenged his expulsion from school. The reports were accurate and – correctly – did not disclose his name, address or school.
Two judges giving reasons for their earlier decision quashing convictions and fines imposed said that the order “should never have been made in the form in which it was made”.
Lord Justice Laws said the original ruling was “too vague and general” and orders like it could constitute “a significant curtailment of press freedom, and the courts must be vigilant to see that they are justified and, if made, are in clear and unambiguous terms”.
He said: “In my judgement an order made in the form of that made in this case by Mr Justice Hooper is altogether too vague and general to constitute a sufficient basis for a subsequent prosecution under section 39.
“An experienced journalist might have assumed that a full prohibition was intended, but the order did not say as much, and the journalist might equally have considered that all that was prohibited was publication of the child’s name.”
If an order “does not tell the reader at all what it is he is prohibited from doing, as in my view is plainly the case, then the consequence must surely be that the order is altogether ineffective”, he said.
He said his and Mr Justice Newman’s findings were not a criticism of Mr Justice Hooper, who heard the original case, as the order when brought before him was uncontentious.
Horsham magistrates convicted both editors of breaching the order, fining them each £2,500, with £547 legal costs, after the child was identified from the newspaper reports by a family friend.
But Mr Justice Newman said: “A person might make such an identification even though the newspaper report had not itself been ‘likely’ to produce that result.”
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