UK: Double murderer is allowed to stay anonymous

Katrin Welker

On 27 January 2016, the Supreme Court granted a released double murderer's request to stay anonymous ([2014] EWCA Civ 1009). The murderer was suffering from severe mental illness for a long time, was convicted of murdering two persons in 1998 and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 11 years. It was a particularly savage killing which had caused untold suffering to the victims and has continued to cause great grief to their families.

In August 2000, the plaintiff had been transferred to a high security psychiatric hospital, following an instruction of the Secretary of State. In August 2007, the plaintiff was transferred from the high-security hospital to a private sector medium-security psychiatric hospital. Starting in 2008, he had unescorted leave within the hospital grounds. From 2009, he also had escorted leave in the community, where he did voluntary work. In July 2012, the doctor responsible for him applied to the Secretary of State for consent for the plaintiff to have unescorted leave in the community, which was refused by letter, dated 13 December 2012.

In November 2013, the patient lodged a complaint against that decision and applied for anonymity in the legal proceedings. The patient claimed that his mental illness had improved and that it was no longer necessary for him to be detained to protect either him or others. The Secretary of State referred the case to the Parole Board. The doctors then applied again for permission to allow him unescorted leave and the Secretary of State refused again.

It was this decision that the murderer decided to proceed against. His appeal was dismissed, including his application for anonymity. He appealed to the Supreme Court against the dismissal of anonymity. The responsible doctor spoke on the plaintiff's behalf and stated that the hospital staff would need to be very vigilant to monitor the safety of the plaintiff if it came to high media interest. This might have a negative impact on the plaintiff and on other patients who are detained in the hospital with him, as well as their attitude towards him. Furthermore, he outlined that the suspension of the anonymity order could cause distress to relatives of the victims in this case, caused by the impact of any media interest. And he expressed his concerns for the safety of his patient in case his whereabouts were made public.

The Court had to balance the plaintiff's right to respect for private life (article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights) with the right to freedom of expression (article 10 of the Convention). Therefore, the main question was whether anonymity was necessary in the interest of the patient. The Court stated that the public has a right to know not only what is going on in the Courts, but also who the principal actors are. On the other hand, the purpose of detention in a hospital for treatment is to make the patient better, so that he is no longer a risk neither to himself nor to others. The whole therapeutic enterprise may be put in jeopardy if confidential information is disclosed in a way which enables the public to identify the patient. In some cases, that disclosure may put the patient himself, and perhaps also the hospital, those treating him and the other patients there, at risk.

Thus, the very real risk that the progress the plaintiff had made during his long years of treatment in the hospital and his re-integration into the community could be in jeopardy, was a justification to grant the plaintiff's application to stay anonymous.

Katrin Welker works as a scientific researcher at the Institute of European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brüssel.

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The verdict of the United Kingdom Supreme Court is available here.

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –