May 23rd, 2011

The Committee on Super-injunctions, established in April 2010 in the wake of the Trafigura and Terry cases, was made up largely of judges and practising lawyers, but also included legal representatives from the Guardian and Trinity Mirror. Nonetheless, the media have not received its report, “Super-Injunctions, Anonymised Injunctions and Open Justice” warmly. The Independent has commented on the “absurdity” of the current situation, while the Daily Mail called the report “a chilling exercise in judicial activism, self-delusion and – most worrying – a constitutional attack on Parliamentary sovereignty and free speech”.

Tensions have escalated since the publication of the report on Friday, and reached a head today. Footballer “CTB” (as his injunction order refers to him) has obtained a disclosure order requiring Twitter (based in California) to divulge the names of the “persons unknown” (resident, of course, in jurisdictions unknown) who have referred to his identity in their tweets. Scotland’s Sunday Herald flouted the order of the High Court of England and Wales in publishing the player’s name. This has apparently prompted calls for the Attorney-General to take action against the journalist responsible, a course of action which in the view of SNP leader Alex Salmond would be unwise. Mr Salmond neatly articulated the jurisdictional (and devolutionary) difficulties of this issue, by arguing on this morning’s Today programme that anyone wishing an injunction to be effective in Scotland should apply to a court in Scotland. Fred Goodwin was “outed” in the Lords last week, and John Hemming MP has moments ago outed CTB himself.

And so it goes on. It has been announced in the past few minutes that a joint parliamentary committee will be established to consider privacy law reform. Against this backdrop, I set out a few (rapidly evolving) thoughts on four of the thorny issues raised by the report, the accompanying press conference given by Lords Neuberger and Judge and the general aftermath. On each of these four issues, my sense at the moment is that matters may develop in favour of openness rather than privacy – despite the failure this afternoon to overturn CTB’s injunction.

First though, a synopsis of the report’s thrust and limited terms of reference.

The report: procedure, not substance

As regards its subject matter, the committee distinguished between super-injunctions (where the order states that neither the named applicant’s private information nor the existence of the order can be published), anonymous injunctions (the order does not name the applicant or parties involved) and “so-called hyper-injunctions” (the order prohibits individuals from discussing matters with third parties).

It sees no legal barrier to any of these types of injunction taking effect. It thinks all such injunctions are very rare, but recommends that statistics be maintained on the granting of injunctions so that their prevalence can be monitored.

The report proposes a tidying up of the procedure for obtaining these injunctions. The committee gives a firm “no” to the use of specialist judges to hear these kinds of application. It says that Practice Guidance should be issued, which should include model orders and the process for expediting appeals against the granting of such orders.

Overall, however, the report is not about substantive law reform: that is a matter for parliament. In fact, it is now an urgent matter for parliament. In my view, some of the key issues to be considered are as follows.

Issue 1: media presence at injunction hearings

Parliament’s committee will, like the reporting committee, take Article 10 ECHR very seriously (for a very recent example of Article 10 affecting the interpretation of FOIA, see my post here). The report observes that “it will be a very rare case where advance notice of such an application to media organisations, which are likely to be affected by any order, can be justifiably withheld”. It proposes that the press be allowed to attend application hearings – bound of course by confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure orders. This would allow the media to be properly informed of the matters on which they may not report, and would also equip them to appeal against orders where they deem this appropriate.

This is doubtless a step in the right direction in terms of Article 10. As the committee recognises, however, there are real practical difficulties with the proposal. First, interim injunction hearings are often so rushed that there is no real prospect of a blanket invitation to the media. Secondly, how does one determine who the “media” are who are allowed to attend such hearings? As Lord Judge put it “we know who you [the media attending the release of the report] are, we’re familiar with you, but someone comes along and says, “I’m from the Argyll and Orkney Express” but how do we know? Do we really expect to have cards issued? Can you imagine the bureaucracy?”.

Part of the problem is this: either anyone with an interest in reporting the matter is allowed to attend, or only the “establishment” (this is my term, but seems the sentiment reflected in Lord Judge’s rhetorical question) is allowed, even though the aim is to make everyone subject to the order, establishment or not. The former option exponentially increases the risk of leaks and disclosures on Twitter. The latter option draws distinctions which are impracticable and problematic in terms of Article 10 and fairness in a broader sense. My view is that the former option will prevail, and that we will see a very broad net of media attendees at future super-injunction hearings. This in itself might serve as a deterrent to making such applications in the first place.

Issue 2: Twitter and other “modern technology”

There has been a flexing of judicial muscle as regards Twitter. Though he described “modern technology” as “totally out of control”, Lord Judge took hope from efforts to combat online child pornography. He said this:

“Are were really going to say that someone who has a true claim of privacy, perfect well made, which the media and newspapers can’t report, has to be at the mercy of someone using modern technology? At the moment that may seem to be the case but I am not giving up on the possibility that people who in effect peddle lies about others by using modern technology may one day be brought under control, maybe through damages – very substantial damages – maybe even through injunctions to prevent the peddling of lies”.

The language of “peddling lies” is curious. That is a concept belonging to libel law, rather than privacy. Those seeking super-injunctions tend not to say the underlying material consists of lies, but simply that it is private. The damage lies not in the falsity of the material, but in the fact that people talk about it.

This distinction is important in at least two respects. First, if an applicant wants to prevent people talking about the matter, but many people have already done so (for example, on Twitter), then his or her case for an ongoing injunction is weakened; it begins to look more a matter for damages than for injunctive relief.

Secondly, foreign jurisdictions may be even less cooperative about orders from England and Wales protecting private (but often true) material than they often are about similar orders concerning libel (see for example the United States’ Speech Act of 2010). Countries co-operate against copyright infringement and child pornography because they think it important to do so in a civilised society. They may be less inclined to think that about, say, Andrew Marr’s sex life. In other words, there is a good chance that legal action, whether for injunctive relief or damages, taken in England and Wales against foreign reporters may simply be impotent.

Contrast this likely impotence with measures for after illegal file-sharers through their internet service providers, proposed under the UK’s Digital Economy Act 2010 (on which, see my discussion here in advance of BT’s judicial review of that Act): unlike Twitter, ISPs often have a commercial footing in the UK which they are concerned to protect; international (including EU) legal protection is far more advanced than for copyright than for privacy; even under the Digital Economy Act’s proposal, infringing users are to be given a number of warnings before their details are handed over to those seeking damages, unlike the old Norwich Pharmacal model being utilised in the footballer’s action against Twitter.

Issue 3: granting and maintaining super-injunctions

The report emphasises that super-injunctions are not to be permanent, but should be granted only for very short periods of time. If anyone notices a super-injunction being granted with no return date, they should complain about it, as was done in the Zac Goldsmith/Jemima Kahn case. So far so good: allowing the media to be present for application hearings would help on this front, as would minimising the time between the interim injunction and the return date.

As regards the grounds on which a super-injunction should be granted, the report’s mood music suggests that some may have been granted too readily. It stresses that “in seeking to minimise derogations from the principle of open justice, the committee envisaged that super-injunctions will only be granted in very limited circumstances”. Other than to emphasise exceptionality and Article 10, there is probably little to be said (either by the committee or by parliament) in terms of guidance to judges on granting such injunctions – this is, and will remain, largely a case-by-case business.

The thorny issue of the moment, however, is this: if a matter has been very widely disclosed on Twitter and other websites, is it fair to maintain an injunction the effect of which is to prevent the establishment media from reporting it? If, as I suggested above, the damage comes from people knowing about what you have done, hasn’t the horse bolted in such circumstances? If people wish to reject your job application or shun you at parties, they will probably do so regardless of how they learnt about your indiscretions. Part of what seemed to concern David Cameron in his ITV interview this morning is this prejudicial effect on the establishment as compared with “newer” media, which commentators have described over the weekend as existing in “parallel universes”.

Lords Neuberger and Judge both suggested on Friday that, to the extent that there are differential effects on newspapers as compared to Twitter, that difference is justified. To a degree, they are correct: rightly or wrongly, we tend to expect more noble and sophisticated ethics from mature brands of journalism than we do from little-known blogs, and applicants no doubt suffer incremental damage from the public seeing matters reported in print headlines or on major news websites which they would otherwise have had to seek out on Twitter. There must come a point, however, where the media’s interests (including under Article 10) outweigh this combination of incremental harm and ethical expectation. That too is probably a matter for case-by-case determination, but it is something parliament’s joint committee will surely wish to consider. It may well side with the media over the privacy-seeking individual if forced to give guidance on a hypothetical case.

Issue 4: parliamentary privilege and contempt of court

The constitutional stakes are highest in this strand of the current debate.

The committee was very clear that no super-injunction or any other court order could conceivably restrict or prohibit parliamentary debate or proceedings. It also recognised that, in defamation proceedings, the reproduction of extracts from Hansard attracts attaches to, while honest, fair and accurate reporting of parliamentary proceedings attracts qualified privilege. It is unclear, however, whether the same would apply in contempt proceedings. In fact, “the law relating to Contempt of Court when it comes to reporting what is said in Parliament is astonishingly unclear”, as Lord Neuberger put it. The extent to which parliamentary privilege attaches to conversations between an MP and his or her constituents (some of whom may of course be journalists) is also unclear.

Lord Judge, however, explicitly disapproved of members of either house using parliamentary privilege to circumvent super-injunctions:

“But you do need to think, do you not, whether it’s a good idea for our lawmakers, to be in effect to be flouting a court order just because they disagree with the order or for that matter because they disagree with the law of privacy which parliament has created”.

John Hemming MP clearly takes a different view.

Again, there is much of interest in Lord Judge’s remark, such as the reference to parliament having created the law of privacy, and the implicit distinction between parliament flouting a court order and an individual member doing so. It would be very surprising, however, if parliament’s joint committee were to propose a constrained version of parliamentary privilege. If that committee is robust in defence of the houses’ privileges, the door may be opened to future “outings”, such as that of Fred Goodwin or CTB. Mindful of this, the reporting committee proposed a softer form of control than the restriction of parliamentary privilege. It suggested that:

“House authorities should consider the feasibility of a streamlined system for answering sub judice queries from the Speakers’ offices. Such a communication system will require the creation of a secure database containing details of super-injunctions and anonymised injunctions held by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, which could be easily searchable following any query from the House authorities”.

Parliament’s committee may well endorse this as the approach best suited to preserving a balance of respect (as opposed to contempt) between parliament, the courts, the media and individuals fearful of their privacy being overridden on political platforms.

On this issue, as with so much of the UK’s constitution, the answer may turn out to be a tense but workable network of understandings, rather than hard law. Perhaps this would calm matters only temporarily. But it might also provide breathing room for the public to evolve our expectations about privacy and freedom in both establishment and “modern technology” media, without bringing the latter under any undue “control”.

Robin Hopkins

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