Judge calls for 'clear and unambiguous' restrictions

A top judge this week warned that courts should be absolutely specific when imposing reporting restrictions.

The warning came as Lord Justice Laws gave his reasons for quashing the convictions of Simon Bradshaw, editor of The Argus, Brighton, and David Briffett, editorial director of West Sussex County Times, for breaching a Section 39 order.

The convictions, in March, followed contempt complaints in respect of restrictions imposed in the case of a teenage boy whose mother was challenging his expulsion from school.

In the course of the High Court hearing, Mr Justice Hooper made an order under Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act.

The hearing was covered by High Court reporting agency Strand News Service and reports based on its copy were published in The Argus and the West Sussex County Times.

The reports contained the boy’s age, his town, the date he was expelled and the date he started at a new school.

A friend of his family claimed, after reading the piece in the West Sussex County Times, that it identified him. The editors were prosecuted and convicted by magistrates for breaching the order.

In quashing the convictions, Lord Justice Laws said that Mr Justice Hooper’s order, which formed the basis for the convictions, was "altogether too vague and general to constitute a sufficient basis for a subsequent prosecution."

He added: "An experienced journalist might have considered that all that was prohibited was publication of the child’s name. Another, less experienced, might have little idea what the order meant at all.

"If the order as drawn does not tell the reader at all what it is that he is prohibited from doing, as, in my view, is plainly the case here, then the consequence must surely be that the order is altogether ineffective.

"It is elementary that the courts will only punish a person for contempt arising by way of breach of an injunction if the injunction’s terms are clear and unambiguous."

He said such orders constituted a significant curtailment of press freedom. Courts should be vigilant to see they were justified and, if made, were clear and unambiguous.

By Roger Pearson

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