The ramifications of a judge’s decision to grant permanent anonymity for a convicted paedophile, who exhibits “sexual preoccupation and limited victim awareness” has been compounded after it emerged applications for information under the Child Protection Disclosure Scheme may be impacted.
Aged in his thirties the paedophile admitted 22 offences involving possessing, distributing and making indecent child images, some of which were in highest category of seriousness.
He could be living close to, or frequenting child-centred facilities, and with his identity hidden the public cannot take steps to manage potential risk to children.
The Child Protection Disclosure Scheme was introduced in 2015 allowing members of the public to apply for information relating to sexual and violent offenders who may pose a risk.
The hard-fought legal amendment is an enhanced equivalent of ‘Sarah’s Law’ in England and Wales but is rendered void for this defendant.
During sentencing at Newry Crown Court, defence counsel insisted anonymity imposed when the defendant first appeared in court should be permanent.
Self-harm incidents occurred as the case proceeded leading Press to point out imposed anonymity had proved an ineffective safeguard.
Press also highlighted the defendant threatened to self-harm if the case went to court, but this had no impact on the decision to prosecute.
While psychiatrically assessed as impulsive and struggling to cope with pressure, a report added, “This should be viewed as part of his difficulties in managing stress, rather than any underlying mental illness.”
Initially ruling in favour of Press Judge Kerr QC found no evidence of mental health conditions which would lead to him self-harming, other than stress from the proceedings.
He held: “Justice should be administered and communicated in public. Fair, accurate contemporaneous media reporting should not be prevented. It’s not appropriate to invoke a power to withhold matters for the defendant’s feelings or comfort or to prevent reputational damage. The reporting restriction now ceases.”
Along with community service and a three year Probation Order, a Sexual Offences Prevention Order (SOPO) was imposed, prohibiting him from residing or staying overnight at any non-approved address.
He must not use any internet-capable device unless approved by his Designated Risk Manager and any permitted device must retain and display internet history. It must be available for inspection by police with whom he is to register any serial numbers and passwords.
Finally, the paedophile must permit police to enter his residence to ensure he is complying with the SOPO terms.
On conclusion of sentencing the defence sought a stay on lifting the reporting ban.
Several adjournments later Judge Kerr reversed his decision, granting unprecedented permanent anonymity.
Enquiries to establish if the defendant was detained under the Mental Health Order at any stage including after sentencing remain unanswered.
When asked how this impacted on the Child Protection Disclosure Scheme, a PSNI spokesperson replied: “Any disclosure decision made under the scheme is on a case by case basis, with many factors taken into consideration including risk, sanctions and any orders placed by the courts including anonymity. All sex offenders are robustly managed by the Public Protection Arrangements for Northern Ireland (PPANI). These are multi-agency arrangements that risk assess and manage convicted sex offenders when re-entering society.”
Following Judge Kerr’s ruling, Press will now be braced for a deluge of similar applications.
Over the last few years attempts to ban Press naming offenders – the majority involving sexual allegations against an assertion of self-harm if identified – have more than quadrupled, despite no legislative or human rights changes.
Press challenged these and usually succeed, although some orders remain in place until cases conclude.
Extending anonymity post-sentence is a deeply troubling development.
Press have repeatedly warned a two-tier system is being permitted to evolve, which not only impacts on open justice but is perilously close to affording sex-offenders enhanced status to slip quietly though the courts.