A judge has banned the media from reporting whether or not a criminal court has even sat under a “very rare” secrecy order. The far-reaching order comes amid concerns over the use of super-injunctions in civil privacy cases and will fuel public debate about justice being done behind closed doors.
It appears to fly in the face of the tradition that criminal cases must be heard in public in the interests of justice. Such restrictions are highly unusual and would only be expected in extreme circumstances.
Reporting any details about the order — even the fact that the hearing has taken place — could lead to journalists being jailed or fined for contempt of court.
In the latest case, the defendant is identified on public court papers only by a single initial, with no details of the charge or charges that he or she faces.
Judges often impose orders banning the reporting of matters heard in criminal courts to prevent prejudicing juries in future trials, to protect witnesses or in the national interest. But the name of defendants, the charges they face and the dates of any future hearing are made available to the media to enable the evidence and legal argument to be reported when the order is lifted. The media is also given the information so that it can seek to challenge the restrictions.
The latest order — which has drawn comparisons with Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial in which a bank clerk, Josef K, is unexpectedly arrested and tried for a crime that is not revealed to him or the reader — also prevents the reporting of whether a hearing has taken place, the name of the lawyers involved if a hearing has taken place and any details of the order itself. The Times has ensured that it has not identified the geographical area of the hearing, the court, the judge, the case name or the identities of the lawyers involved.
It was meant to be a warning, not an instruction manual.