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Judges recommend Britain issue fewer gag orders

Civil liberties advocates hail the British judges' report on the practice of banning some allegations and information from publication. The report recommends media be allowed to contest gag orders beforehand.

May 21, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Britain's judges recommended sparing use of injunctions and gag orders.
Britain's judges recommended sparing use of injunctions and gag… (Carl Court / AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from London   — Britain's most senior judges recommended Friday more sparing use of "super injunctions" and other controversial gag orders after news organizations and rights groups complained of closed-door justice and unfair suppression of information.

Civil liberties advocates welcomed the judges' long-awaited report on the common courtroom practice of banning some allegations and information from publication. Other court orders known as super injunctions go further, forbidding news outlets from even reporting that such a ban exists, thus creating a complete media blackout.

David Neuberger, the top civil judge in England and Wales, acknowledged Friday that such restrictive court orders had been issued too frequently.

"A degree of secrecy is often necessary to do justice, but where secrecy is ordered, it should only be to the extent strictly necessary to achieve the interests of justice," said Neuberger, who headed the committee of judges that issued the report.

The report recommends that media organizations be allowed to contest injunctions before they're issued and that super injunctions be in force for only limited periods.

The report and its recommendations will now be considered by Parliament and by judicial authorities.

The gag orders have drawn close scrutiny lately because of a number of cases involving allegations of infidelity by high-profile figures, including professional athletes, actors and financiers. Critics say the injunctions tend to benefit rich men.

In some instances, judges have blocked release of the names of the people involved, allowing only random initials to be used.

In another case, a highly respected broadcast journalist, Andrew Marr, admitted to not only cheating on his wife but also winning a super injunction to prevent fellow reporters from ever mentioning it. Marr broke his silence last month amid accusations of professional hypocrisy.

"I did not come into journalism to go around gagging journalists," he told one of Britain's most popular tabloids. "Am I embarrassed by it? Yes."

Neuberger said the judges' recommendations tried to strike "a fair and proper balance between the principles of open justice and freedom of expression for the public and for the media and an individual's right to confidentiality and privacy."

Not all the cases concern private behavior. Trafigura, a large commodities firm, won a super injunction barring newspapers from publishing a damning internal report on toxic dumping. The gag order was lifted after the WikiLeaks website defied the injunction and posted the report on the Internet.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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