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Custodial sentences passed for breaching anonymity injunction

Attorney General v Richard Mckeag and Natalie Barker, Divisional Court, 31 January 2019 [2019] 1 WLUK 332

Two individuals admitted contempt of court for publishing information about Thompson and Venables in breach of an injunction. The injunction, binding worldwide, prohibits the publication of anything revealing the identity and/or location of the two individuals convicted as children of the murder of James Bulger in 1993. The court suspended both custodial sentences due to strong personal mitigation, principally related to mental and physical health and child care responsibilities.

Details

The Attorney General applied to commit the defendants to prison for contempt of court for publishing information purporting to identify Venables in breach of a longstanding injunction.The first respondent authored and published an article on his website said to be of Venables and purported to reveal his identity and place of work. The post acknowledged the injunction and encouraged people to share. The second respondent posted a collection of pictures via her Twitter said to be of Venables and his fiancé and sought information about the whereabouts of Thompson. The information was retweeted multiple times, and she continued despite receiving warnings from Twitter and the police. The respondents did not know one another.

The court said that had it not been for their personal circumstances, both defendants would have been sent to prison for their serious breaches. In sentencing, the court had regard to the guidelines for breach offences (although not directly applicable) and considered Amicus Horizon Ltd v Thorley 1 and Doey v Islington LBC 2. Although the first respondent’s conduct was assessed as being the most serious, both were said to have committed “serious” breaches that warranted prison. In mitigation, the first respondent’s mental and physical health was referred to; the defendant was unable to attend the hearing due to being admitted to hospital the day before. Further, he removed the post, wrote of his remorse and provided a personal guarantee that the offending conduct would not be repeated. The second respondent, who was present, also advanced mental health and remorse in her personal mitigation, in addition to closing her Twitter account and promising never to repeat the offending conduct. Furthermore, she was a single mother of three children. The first respondent and second respondent were sentenced to 12-months and 8-months respectively, both suspended for 2-years.

Commentary

The  courts only very rarely preserve for life the anonymity of those who commit offences as children. Sometimes their anonymity is not preserved at all.   As a result, changing their names and obtaining injunctions preventing identification is the only way they can live anonymously. Public hatred towards those who have committed offences as children can be considerable and they are likely to be at real risk of life threatening danger if identified, therefore breaches of these injunctions must be taken seriously.

  1. [2012] EWCA Civ 817  (back)
  2. [2012] EWCA Civ 1825  (back)