The press will mount a challenge against a court's decision to grant a South Derry man facing motoring and public order charges, anonymity.
The accused, who is in his 30s, was granted the order because of alleged mental health issues, even though he did not appear in court and no medical evidence was supplied to support his claims.
He cannot be identified after a judge at Dungannon Magistrates Court acceded to a defence request for anonymity, mounted in his client’s absence. It is one of the latest in an ever-increasing surge in the granting of such orders for defendants who claim publishing their identity in relation to alleged criminality is detrimental to their mental health, and citing human rights legislation.
Press have consistently argued, while it is an accepted fact many persons coming before the courts are suffering from some form of mental health issue, a section are being treated differently to others, through the granting of anonymity. It isn’t a uniform practice, but varies widely, as some courts and judiciary approach the applications differently.
It is an acknowledged requirement under open justice principles, to publish the name and address of a defendant charged in court, unless there are very particular, specific reasons, which must be supported with appropriate evidence.
Despite the recent publication of updated guidance on procedures in all criminal courts ahead of seeking reporting restrictions or anonymity orders alongside specific training for judiciary just last month, the defence failed to put press on notice ahead of the application, even though the accused’s name, age, address and charges were available and publishable for a full week before the case came to court.
The court also failed to advise press what was permitted to be published within the terms of the anonymity order, even though that too is a requirement and it was several days before this was clarified. That in turn impacted on contemporaneous coverage and reporting of the case.
The case in question alleges the defendant drove after consuming excess alcohol, failed to provide a breath specimen and used disorderly behaviour. All matters relate to an incident on the afternoon of September 21, in Moneymore.
A defending lawyer pointed out his client was not present in court as he was, “seeing his GP”.
A police officer formally connected all charges to the accused in his absence.
By way of explanation in seeking anonymity the defence said, “It’s complicated. He has mental health issues.” No medical evidence was submitted or the issues in question elaborated on.
Going by the dates, it is clear the first scheduled court appearance was three months after the alleged incident. The defendant would have had at least 28 days prior to his first appearance and formal connection by police in court.
Under these circumstances, he would have been released on bail following arrest to appear in person at court. The intervening period was ample time to obtain medical evidence in support of any alleged illness, instead of attending with his doctor on the same day he was due in court, as per bail terms.
Press attempts to contact the defence lawyers, in an effort to ascertain if there may be grounds for anonymity, were ignored and the overall handling of the matter was reported to the Lord Chief Justice.
The judge, having agreed to ban publication of the accused's identity, did note this will be reviewed on the next occasion when press intend to mount a challenge on the grounds of open justice principles and citing procedural failings.
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