In the case of Medway Council v Root 2019, a mother was found to be in contempt of Court orders prohibiting her from publishing certain items about the care proceedings and her children, and having previously been given suspended sentences for earlier breaches, was given a nine month custodial sentence.
The eldest child had written to the Court expressing unhappiness as to the information the mother was placing about them and the siblings on the internet.
The point of law arose on one alleged breach – the judgments are published and on Bailii and anonymised.
The Reporting Restriction Order said this:-
AND it is permissible to publish the [five judgments of 17/07/2017, 18/07/2017, 30/08/2017, 15/03/2018 and 11/05/2018] save that the judgments are not to be published:
in conjunction with any other material that names the children or identifies them by photograph or any other image; or
on any online page containing any other material that names the children or identifies them by photograph or any other image where the existence of that material is known to the publisher.
The mother was said to have published material identifying herself and the children, with a hyperlink to the judgment.
Was that publishing the judgment? (Mr Elliott was for Medway, Mr Dean was for Ms Root)
- In relation to the issue of the hyperlink both counsel agree there is no binding authority on this issue in this jurisdiction in the context of contempt. Mr Dean’s assiduous researches have produced two cases from other jurisdictions; a decision of the Canadian Supreme Court (Crookes v Newton  3 S.C.R. 269) and an Australian decision of the Supreme Court in NSW (Visscher v Maritime Union of Australia (No 6)  NSWSC 350). They both involved defamation actions. Crookes concerned an action against the person who owned and operated a website which posted an article which contained shallow and deep hyperlinks to other websites which in turn contained information about the applicant, two of which the applicant alleged connected to defamatory material. In Visscher the applicant sued the owner and operator of a website that contained information on the website and a link to an article, both of which the applicant alleged was defamatory.
- In Crookes the majority judgment was given by Abella J. Justice Abella considered that hyperlinks bear the same relationship to the content of the impugned publication as references in that
‘…both communicate that something exists, but do not, by themselves, communicate its content. And they both require some act on the part of a third party before he or she gains access to the content. The fact that access to that content is far easier with hyperlinks than with footnotes does not change the reality that a hyperlink, by itself, is content neutral – it expresses no opinion, nor does it have any control over, the content to which it refers.’
She concluded that
‘ …making reference to the existence and/or location of content by hyperlink or otherwise, without more, is not publication of that content. Only when a hyperlinker presents content from the hyperlinked material in a way that actually repeats the defamatory content, should the content be considered to be ‘published’ by the hyperlinker.’
- Whilst McLachlin C.J. and Fish J agreed with the majority ‘substantially’ they considered a hyperlink should constitute publication if, read contextually, the text that includes the hyperlink constitutes adoption or endorsement of the specific content it links to. A mere general reference to a web site is not enough to find publication. Deschamps J observed that excluding hyperlinks from the scope of the publication rule is an inadequate solution to the novel issues raised by the Internet. The blanket exclusion exaggerates the difference between references and other acts of publication, and treats all references, from footnotes to hyperlinks, alike, thereby disregarding the fact that references vary greatly in how they make defamatory information available to third parties and, consequently, in the harm they can cause to people’s reputations.
- In Visscher there was reference to the judgments in Crookes but Beech-Jones J considered that decision was not consistent with Australian authority and that the approach of McLachlin C.J. and Fish J in Crookes ‘…can be readily adopted to circumstances in which a person is alleged to the publisher of material by inserting a hyperlink directing viewers to its web location. In particular, the question is whether, by the inclusion of the hyperlink, the defendant accepted responsibility for the publication of the hyperlinked material. This could be answered in the affirmative if, amongst other ways, it was concluded that there was an approval, adoption, promotion or some other form of ratification of the content of the hyperlinked material’
- Mr Elliott relies on the Visscher case submitting that the court can, if the circumstances of the case permit, find that the hyperlink equates with publication of the judgment. Mr Dean prefers the analysis in Crookes which he submits is more clearly reasoned and was not bound by any domestic authority.
- Whilst acknowledging both of these cases have to be viewed in the context of the proceedings they were concerned with, namely defamation, and, in any event, are not binding on this court I prefer the approach taken in Crookes in that making reference to the existence of something by hyperlink, without more, is not publication of that content. As Abella J observed the hyperlink communicates something exists but a further act is required before access is gained to it. In Visscher the factual position was different in that the website contained an article on the website as well as the hyperlink (indicating some adoption or promotion of the content of the hyperlinked material) and there was previous Australian authority that reached an analogous conclusion. That previous Australian authority cited an English Court of Appeal decision (Hird v Wood (1894) 38 Sol J 234) which was said in Visscher to be an example of a person approving, adopting or promoting a defamatory statement of another and thereby accepting responsibility for it. Mr Dean rightly referred the court to this decision but it does not assist in the situation this court is dealing with, as the context was limited to what facts could be left to a jury in a defamation action. I accept it could be said that the publication of the judgment citation together with the hyperlink is sufficient but, in my judgment, that does not equate with publishing the full judgment in connection with any identifying information relating to the children. It comes very close, but in the circumstances where this court is dealing with in proceedings involving contempt the position needs to be unambiguous.
- In the future when considering orders such as those made in this case it may be sensible for the court to actively consider whether there should be an express prohibition of publication of hyperlinks.
Allegation 1 – on 27/6/18 Ms Root published a link to the judgment of Mrs Justice Theis from 15.3.18
- This is based on the screenshot of a Facebook page with Ms Root’s name on it, with her photo (which is one of the profile pictures) on a page which contains other material featuring Ms Root (such as a video posted on 6 December 2017).
- Even if the court accepts this is Ms Root’s Facebook page the issue in relation to this allegation is does the posting of the hyperlink amount to a breach of the restriction in the injunction order and the RRO to ‘publish’ the judgment in conjunction with material that names X or Y (which the Facebook page does).
- Mr Elliott submits this is sufficient, when taken with everything else, for the court to conclude, if the court is satisfied Ms Root put the hyperlink there, she was publishing the judgment in circumstances where there was material identifying the children. That is how it is set out in the committal application why that amounted to a breach; in paragraph 1 (c) he nails his colours to the mast of the second part of paragraph 16 of the RRO. In his written and oral submissions, he sought to submit that Ms Root can’t have it both ways in that if it did not amount to publication, it was caught by the first part of paragraph 16 of the RRO as being ‘any information or details’ in relation to the hearing on 15.3.18.
- Mr Dean submits that the requirements of rule 37.3 make it clear there is a mandatory requirement on the applicant in committal applications to set out separately each alleged act of contempt. It is not appropriate or fair for the applicant to put the case in a way that is not set out in the application. Mr Elliott prays in aid the guidance given by Lord Woolf MR in Nicholls that the court should consider what prejudice there is to Ms Root when the position had been made clear in the skeleton argument.
- I am satisfied this breach is not proved to the required standard, for the following reasons:
(1) It is clear the applicant’s case is founded on the hyperlink being a breach of the prohibition to publish, in both the injunction order and RRO. It says in terms under the reasons for this amounting to a breach Ms Root was ‘expressly forbidden from publishing this judgment’ (para 1A) and similar in para 1C. There is no mention or reference in the relevant part of the application to being prohibited from ‘publishing…any information or details’ and Mr Elliott did not apply to amend his grounds.
(2) Whilst there may be an argument that publishing a hyperlink does equate to publishing the judgment that has not been decided before in this jurisdiction. I consider there is some force to the argument (as accepted by the Supreme Court of Canada in Crookes) that a hyperlink is a reference to the existence and/or location of the content, rather than publication of that content. To get to the content, a further step needs to be taken, namely, to click on the link. It is arguable that without clicking on the link there is no publication of it.
(3) I agree with Mr Dean, that if there are competing arguments in an, as yet, undecided area of the law Ms Root should be given the benefit of that uncertainty.
As there is doubt, in a committal hearing the benefit of the doubt goes to the person who is alleged to be in contempt, so Ms Root was not in breach of the order prohibiting ‘publication’ of the judgments in connecting to the family.
As Theis J says, the orders will need to be drafted with precision if it is intended that someone cannot describe their case and link to a published judgment.
The case also sets out the detailed history and sentencing remarks.