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Fraudster named after reporter blocks lifetime secrecy bid

Tanya FowlesA reporter has won a court fight to name a fraudster who demanded lifetime anonymity on the grounds that she could self-harm.

Freelance court reporter Tanya Fowles, pictured, has succeeded in naming Aisling Conway, a bank clerk who stole between £91,000 and £172,000 from a 90-year-old customer’s account and spent it on gambling.

The reporting ban was originally imposed after Conway threatened to self-harm if publicly identified and remained in place while the case moved through the court process until sentencing.

At that point, Judge Brian Sherrard agreed with Tanya’s application for the restriction to be lifted at Dungannon Crown Court.

Tanya, who is also an award-winning BBC local democracy reporter covering councils in Northern Ireland, has mounted a long-running campaign challenging spurious bids by court defendants, including convicted paedophiles, to have reporting restrictions imposed on their cases.

These have included instances where restrictions have been imposed on the grounds that the defendant claims they would self-harm if named.

After Tanya made the challenge, Conway’s defence barrister argued the order should be made permanent because his client had previous mental health issues that led to the original reporting ban being imposed.

In response, the judge said: “There is an exceptionally strong constitutional imperative for open justice and the system falls into disrepute when it departs from that.

“Invariably, with anybody standing in the dock there is a price to pay concerning mental health, but the hurdle is particularly high and I do not consider it met in this case.”

Conway, 38, had admitted multiple counts of theft, fraud by abuse of position and converting criminal property over a three-and-a-half year period from 2016 to 2019.

The court was told the funds were stolen from a pensioner who was no longer physically able to attend the bank, and that a tearful Conway had confessed to her crimes when the matter was raised by a family member of the elderly victim.

It was heard in mitigation that Conway, of Pomeroy, County Tyrone, had endured several years of significant stresses and become addicted to online gambling.

Judge Sherrard imposed a sentence of 22 months imprisonment but agreed to suspend this for three years due to her “exceptional circumstances” of having young children.

She is also to pay £20,000 to the bank, which reimbursed the victim in full.

Speaking to HTFP, Tanya said: “The judge’s decision and comments were very welcome, but defence lawyers are still using the [European Convention on Human Rights] Article 2 threat to self-harm as rationale for gagging the press.

“Fear of public identification equates to embarrassment and the guidance clearly states that is not a reason for a reporting ban.

“While there must be every understanding for those with mental health issues, it could safely be said every single defendant facing court will have some level of stress or distress. Where does it stop?

“Press cannot continue to be held to ransom over such threats. We are the only sector involved in the court process to have our role fettered by these claims.

“Threatening self-harm to avoid arrest, charging, court appearance and even jail will have absolutely no impact whatsoever on due process.

“Yet press are made subject to reporting bans despite publication not being the actual issue, rather it is the offending becoming known.”