The open justice principle demands that litigants who choose to fight their cases in a public forum must ordinarily live with the prospect that their names and images may end up plastered all over the press. There are exceptions to that general rule but, as a High Court ruling emphasised, they are few and far between.
Over 200 employees or former employees of Members of Parliament intended to launch proceedings for damages against the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority – the body that regulates MPs’ business costs and expenses – alleging misuse of private information, breach of confidence and breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.
Their complaints arose from an incident in which a member of the authority’s staff was alleged to have uploaded several spreadsheets onto its website, where they remained for about four hours. The spreadsheets were said to contain highly confidential information, including the claimants’ names, details of their job descriptions, employment status and salaries.
The claimants alleged that the leak caused them anger, distress, anxiety and upset at the loss of their privacy and confidentiality and of their control over their personal information and data. They were concerned for their personal safety and that of their family members, that their career prospects might be blighted and that they would be exposed to fraud and financial loss.
Prior to formally lodging their claims, they sought orders that they should not be identified in the proceedings. They argued that the press should be restrained from publishing anything that might tend to identify them. It was submitted that, were the claimants exposed to the full glare of publicity, the risk to their personal safety would be increased and the whole object of the proceedings would be defeated.
The Court acknowledged that media reports of proceedings may have an adverse impact on the rights and interests of others. Refusing to grant anonymity, however, it noted that such collateral impacts are ordinarily viewed as part of the price to be paid for maintaining the open justice principle and the freedom of the press to fairly and accurately report judicial proceedings.
The evidence in support of the application was generalised, weak and fell a long way short of demonstrating a credible risk that the claimants, if identified, would be exposed to harm. If the open justice principle were to be calibrated on the risk of irrational, and probably criminal, actions by a handful of people, almost all proceedings would have to be conducted behind closed doors under a cloak of almost total anonymity.
Lesser measures, short of anonymity, were justified to protect the claimants’ interests and the Court ordered that the access of the press and others to documents containing confidential and private information should be restricted. The Court left the door open to further applications for anonymity to be made but indicated that they would only succeed if supported by cogent evidence that publication of the claimants’ names and addresses would expose them to a credible threat of physical or other harm.