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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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