Press fears further gags as councils turn to the courts

Keighley: ‘court cases involving children are becoming a minefield’

Journalists are facing a new threat to the principle of open justice in the form of council social services departments.

In South Wales, council officers have taken out injunctions on three occasions, which have prevented the naming of adult criminal defendants.

And South Wales Argus editor Gerry Keighley is concerned that the practice could escalate nationwide.

According to the councils concerned, the injunctions are taken out to protect the identity of children taken into foster care as a result of the criminal actions of their parents. But, said Keighley, these injunctions also protect criminals and could cover up council malpractice.

The most recent injunction involved a man charged with breaking the skull of his baby son.

At Crown Court the Argus successfully argued that a baby could not be harmed by publicity. It persuaded a judge to lift a Section 39 order covering the child, Lewis Woods, and by extension his father, 24-year-old David. On the day of sentencing, Montmouthshire County Council, which was caring for the child, took out an injunction at the High Court banning his identification in the press.

On this occasion, last week, the injunction was revoked because the Argus was already on the streets.

But twice previously in the past six months these social services injunctions have been upheld.

Keighley said: “This case highlights a growing trend among local council social services departments to seek High Court injunctions even when a Crown Court judge has allowed identification.

It is turning the reporting of any criminal case that involves children and the social services into a minefield. I expect my reporters to challenge court orders if we believe they are inappropriate or prevent justice being seen to be done.

“Now, even when we are successful, we get an injunction slapped on us without warning. The likelihood then is that if we try to challenge the injunction, the High Court judge will order a full hearing with a clutch of barristers present that makes the risks of enormous costs a real threat.

“I believe this will become a major problem for papers everywhere once social services departments around the country latch on, and it is a flagrant attack on the principle of open justice.

“It allows people like David Woods to remain anonymous and it could prevent exposure of social services neglect, which is surely not the point of our justice system.”

Keighley challenged a previous injunction unsuccessfully at the High Court Family Division, leaving his Newsquest paper to pick up the costs, estimated at thousands of pounds.

By Dominic Ponsford

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