A judge has ordered reporting restrictions to remain in place for a suspect based on a police officer’s ascertain that so-called paedophile hunters are operating in the area of the accused’s home.
The case in question relates to a male accused of intentionally encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity on an unknown date in 2018.
While the case first appeared before Armagh Magistrates’ Court in December, the required advance notice was not provided to press in respect of the reporting ban, and the position was challenged through the Office of the Lord Chief Justice.
Enquiries revealed: “The application which preceded the order was agreed upon by the PSNI, PPSNI and defence. The basis for the order was that there was a risk to the safety, health and well-being of the defendant as he is in fear of attack if identified”.
In cross-referencing, the Public Prosecution Service [PPS] replied: “The PPS raised with the judge issues that had been highlighted to them by police. There was a concern that identification of the defendant may in turn lead to the identity of the injured party being revealed and this was mentioned to the judge. Any order made was a matter for the judge.”
Press pointed out if real and imminent risk to the accused was a grounding principle, evidence would be required from police.
All attempts to engage with PSNI to ascertain if this was done were rejected.
At the most recent hearing the judge stated: “Much of what is in the press submission is factually accurate. If the order doesn’t comply with usual requirements toward press, as the guardians of public interest, I am duty bound to consider what they are saying.”
The defence argued the safety aspect was evidenced by: “A very experienced police officer who lives locally relevant to this case.”
The officer was initially not in attendance but joined by video-link.
The judge enquired what the officer had previously told the court who replied: “I connected (accused) to the charge on the first occasion and having worked in the area the defence asked me some questions. It’s a small community and I would have been familiar with the family name. It wouldn’t have taken a lot of process to find out who they were from the nature of the incident.”
However, the judge pointed out the reporting ban was directed toward the Human Rights of the accused, given a claim he may be under threat if his identity was made known.
“I’m concerned any limitation on the rights of press must be accordance with law and principle of open justice. This issue is if the order made is specific to preserving the anonymity of the defendant. It can only continue to have validity if the court is satisfied it is necessary to protect him.”
He again asked for evidence on this, to which the officer said: “It’s a small, rural community. The family would be well known. I think he would be easily identified, and I know there have been incidents recently were paedophile hunters have gone to houses and attacked individuals.
“I am aware that is prevalent within the area, or certainly was last year. They have turned up at houses and one was arrested for assault. After that there was a bit of a lull, but I believe they are still active in the area.”
The judge decided: “You’ve given evidence on oath of a prevalent..so-called paedophile hunter actually attacked someone. I’m content an order is required. I do believe there is a threat to this man’s life if his name is identified.”