Just after the Ben Butler conviction about Ellie Butler’s murder, the family Court decided that the judgment of King LJ about Ellie’s death would remain confidential. At the time, nobody quite understood why. And it was a very unpopular decision, many people feeling that the family Court had misjudged the public mood for openness and learning lessons from the case.
Then Pauffley J’s judgment was published and it transpired that the decision was largely about making sure that if Ben Butler appealed and got a re-hearing he couldn’t use the publication of the judgment to get off on a technicality that it had stopped him having a fair trial.
I wrote about that here
The Press appealed that decision and the Court of Appeal overturned it
Re C (A child) 2016
- The central issue that arises on this appeal is whether the judgment given by Eleanor King J on 30 June 2014 (“the Judgment”) in care proceedings in respect of a child to whom I shall refer as “C” and which were conducted in private and subject to reporting restrictions should be put in the public domain. C is the younger sibling of Ellie Butler. The parents of the two children are Mr Butler and Ms Gray. On 28 October 2013, Ellie died as a result of catastrophic head injuries at the family home.
- Following her death, Mr Butler was arrested on suspicion of her murder. C was removed from the care of Ms Gray and placed into police protection and care. Public law care proceedings were commenced and thereafter orders were made from time to time prohibiting any publication that would enable C to be identified. The first of these was made by Hogg J on 30 October 2013.
- In the Judgment, Eleanor King J found that (i) Mr Butler had caused Ellie’s death; (ii) Ms Gray had failed to protect her from Mr Butler; and (iii) C had been the victim of physical and emotional abuse.
That information that Ellie’s younger sibling had been the victim of physical abuse had not been in the public domain until today. The emotional abuse we could have guessed at – given that Ben and Jennie made C find Ellie’s body as part of the cover-up, but the physical abuse is new information, and obviously significant.
- In what follows, like the judge I shall only refer to Mr Butler. So far as I am aware, Ms Gray has not indicated that she is intending to seek leave to appeal. The letter from Bindmans was written on behalf of Mr Butler. In balancing the article 6 rights of Mr Butler against the public interest in open justice and the article 10 rights of the applicants, I am in no doubt that the judge reached the wrong conclusion. If she had made a proper assessment of the risk that there would be a violation of Mr Butler’s right to a fair trial, she would have been bound to conclude that the risk was minimal and was plainly outweighed by the countervailing considerations to which I have referred.
- First, she made no assessment of the likelihood of a retrial. This was not the judge’s fault. It is a striking feature of this case that no attempt was made on behalf of Mr Butler to demonstrate that he had real prospects of being granted permission to appeal, still less that any appeal would be likely to succeed. In these circumstances, the judge should have approached the article 6 issue on the basis that there was at best a speculative possibility that there would be a retrial.
- But the second and decisive reason why the judge reached the wrong conclusion is that, even if there is a retrial, there is no real possibility that the publication of the Judgment will prejudice the rights of Mr Butler to a fair trial. This is clearly demonstrated by both our domestic jurisprudence and the jurisprudence of the ECtHR which are entirely harmonious with each other on this point.
- Our domestic law is heavily influenced by section 4(2) of the CCA which provides that an order postponing the publication of a report of proceedings can only be made “where it appears to be necessary for avoiding a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice”. Such an order should only be made as a “last resort”: R (Press Association) v Cambridge Crown Court  1 WLR 1979 per Lord Judge CJ at para 13.
- In assessing whether there is a “substantial risk of prejudice”, it is necessary for the court to have regard to three matters in particular. First, juries “have a passionate and profound belief in, and a commitment to, the right of a defendant to be given a fair trial”: Re B  EMLR 5 at para 31. The importance of trusting a criminal jury to comply with directions made by the trial judge has been underlined repeatedly. For a recent example, I refer to Taylor  UKPC 8 at para 25. Criminal Practice Direction 26G.3 identifies what judges should cover in their opening instructions to jurors. This includes that the jury should try the case only on the evidence and no other material. In particular, juries are directed to make no internet searches relating to the trial and to avoid discussing the case with anyone outside their number, including on social media.
- Secondly, broadcasting authorities and newspaper editors should be trusted to fulfil their responsibilities accurately to inform the public of court proceedings, and to exercise sensible judgment about the publication of comment which may interfere with the administration of justice: Re B at para 25.
- Thirdly, the “fade factor” that applies in news cases. The “staying power of news reports is very limited”: Judicial College Guidance on Reporting Restrictions in the Criminal Courts, revised in May 2016 at p 29. The significance of this factor may have reduced a little in view of the staying power of the internet. But in my view, it remains a highly relevant factor.
- It is clear from the Strasbourg jurisprudence that, even if there were a retrial of Mr Butler, his article 6 rights would not outweigh the article 10 rights of the applicants.
- In Beggs v United Kingdom (app. No. 15499/10), the ECtHR adopted an approach which is entirely consonant with that adopted in our domestic jurisprudence: see paras 122 to 129. It noted, in particular, in cases concerning the fairness of criminal trials, the importance of directions given to juries. In that case, there had been a “virulent and prejudicial press and media campaign” against the applicant before his criminal trial took place. The complaint that the impugned publications had influenced the jury was declared inadmissible for a number of reasons. These included that in his directions the judge had warned the jury to disregard the prejudicial material and that it was reasonable to assume that the jury would follow the directions given.
- Abdulla Ali v United Kingdom (App. no. 30971/12) was a similar case. There was what was described as “an avalanche of objectionable material” in prominent position in both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers. The court said at para 89 that a direction to the jury to disregard extraneous material “will usually be adequate to ensure the fairness of the trial, even if there has been a highly prejudicial campaign….”. At para 91, the court said that “it will be rare that prejudicial pre-trial publicity will make a fair trial at some future date impossible.” The applicant had not pointed to a single case where the ECtHR had found a violation of article 6 on account of adverse publicity affecting the fairness of the trial itself.
- The judge acknowledged that, in the event of a retrial, the risk of prejudice to its fairness occasioned by the publication of the Judgment was “small”. In my view, it was so negligible that it should have been given little or no weight in the balancing exercise. The judge failed to take into account (i) the fact that the jury would be directed to ignore anything they read or heard outside the trial and that it should and would be trusted to follow the directions given by the trial judge; (ii) the fact that broadcasting and newspaper editors should be trusted to behave responsibly; and (iii) the fade factor (it would be many months and possibly more than a year before a retrial would take place). If she had properly taken these factors into account, she would have been bound to conclude that the Judgment should be put into the public domain. Mr Bunting makes the further valid point that it is difficult to see how the publication of the Judgment could create a separate substantial risk of prejudice given that much of what appears in it is already in the public domain. But I do not need to examine this point in detail since the Judgment should be put into the public domain for the reasons that I have already given, subject to the redactions necessary to protect the interests of C. These redactions have been the subject of further submissions and the Court has made an Order determining the way in which the Judgment should be redacted.
- For all these reasons, I would allow this appeal and permit the Judgment to be published with the approved redactions.
As far as I understand, the King LJ judgment is now in the hands of the Press, some redactions to it having been made (to preserve C’s anonymity, no doubt). It is not at the time of writing, up on Bailii but I will keep an eye out.