Thinking clearly about superinjunctions

Do not be carried away by the current media frenzy.

Yesterday evening there appeared on Twitter an account which purported to disclose the details of various supposed "superinjunctions".

None of the apparent revelations seemed to be in the public interest. Instead, it seemed a depressing publication of personal information, which, whether true or false, was a needless intrusion into the private lives of those involved. One basis of a civilised and liberal society is that information that only concerns the private lives of those involved should remain privy to them, unless there is a public interest to the contrary. Everyone needs a private space, even celebrities and politicians.

At closer look, some of the examples were, in fact, based on quite normal injunctions which had been reported in the media; a couple of examples were based on current rumours and educated guesswork; and a couple were so unlikely that they appeared to be fabricated. Overall, it looked like a hoax account insofar as it claimed to be giving out reliable information on "superinjunctions". The only slightly interesting point was the number of media and legal twitterers who were suddenly looking at the account not really knowing what could -- and should -- be done with these trivial and personal allegations. Such observers were right to be concerned: one false move could well have been a contempt of court or a fresh defamatory publication.

The background to all this is that the word "superinjunction" now has a special and exciting quality. This is strange as, in one important way, "superinjunctions" do not really exist. What the High Court can offer are injunctions: court orders directed at parties so as to prevent certain specified courses of action. A "superinjunction" is just a normal injunction but with strict terms, and it is not an entirely new legal creature. Strict injunctions are as old as the equitable jurisdiction of the High Court.

Not even in colloquial terms is there an agreed description of what is a "superinjunction". The best practical definition is that it is an injunction, the terms of which mean that disclosure to a third party that the injunction even exists would itself be a breach of the injunction. Sometimes such court orders are entirely proper. In the criminal and human rights context, the analogous "Mary Bell" orders prevent disclosure of details which would point to the identity of a former criminal. In the civil context, such strict injunctions are granted in rare cases where the type of legal right being protected -- confidentiality, legal professional privilege, private information -- is such that the right would itself be lost if the existence of the injunction was revealed.

Unless the contention is that the courts should never protect such legal rights -- thus effectively rendering the law protecting confidentiality, legal professional privilege, private information as having no practical effect in certain rare situations -- then there is a role for so-called "superinjunctions", though they should only be granted sparingly and always for good reason.

It should also be noted that "superinjunctions" are exceptional in libel claims, and when one hears a pundit casually conflate the two issues -- for example, the notorious Trafigura superinjunction was not granted in respect of libel -- then it is usually a sign that the pundit does not actually know what he or she is talking about. Similarly, injunctions where the names of one or more of the parties are simply anonymised are not "superinjunctions" as the fact of the injunction is usually public.

So why is there this current frenzy about "superinjunctions"? Why is the tabloid media desperately seeking to discredit "superinjunctions" in theory and, as far as they dare, in practice? The reason is partly that such court orders undermine a certain unattractive approach to reporting celebrity news. It is also partly because court orders actually work. Unlike with "phone-tapping" and data privacy laws, robust editors and their lawyers cannot blithely disregard the risk of the legal consequences of a breach of an injunction.

But one suspects the primary reason why the tabloid media are now so anxious to undermine the whole notion of "superinjunctions" is that the European Court of Human Rights is expected to hand down its decision in the Mosley case later this week.

The issue in this potentially highly significant case is whether the UK should make it a requirement that before the mainstream media can irrecoverably publish private information, they should first notify the individuals concerned. This sensible and fair approach is deeply opposed by the mainstream media, as the alerted individuals may well immediately apply to the High Court for an injunction to protect their right against private and personal information being wrongly publicised. However, if such injunctions can be discredited in the "Court of Public Opinion" then it is less likely that any adverse judgment in the Mosley case will gain traction.

Ultimately, personal privacy is as much a basic human right as freedom of expression. Neither has an inherent priority over the other. The courts rightly do not presume in favour of one or against the other when the two appear to conflict. "Superinjunctions" are granted in individual cases where the rights of the individuals involved appear to the Courts to warrant an interference with free speech. One hopes that they are not granted too lightly and that, if so, there can be reform as to how the Courts approach such applications.

But we must be wary of the tabloid media seeking to entice us into a frenzy or latter day witch-craze against "superinjunctions" being granted at all. The tabloid media had no proper regard for the basic laws protecting human privacy in the phone-hacking scandal, and so one should be sceptical of their protestations now.

 

David Allen Green is a media lawyer and legal correspondent to the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.