As the media coverage about Jon Venables intensifies, it is worth recalling that both Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who had been convicted as children of a notorious child murder, were in 2001 granted injunctions by the High Court “against the whole world” (contra mundum) preventing their identification. These injunctions remain in force.
Whilst the injunctions were founded on the law of confidence, the justification for their exceptional terms was that the publication of private information would put the life or safety of the claimant(s) at risk (see Venables v News Group Newspapers  Fam 340).
The Court held that there was jurisdiction to grant an injunction for breach of confidence against the whole world. There was a “strong possibility” that if the claimants were identified their lives would be at risk. An injunction contra mundum was granted to prevent the publication of information which might lead to their identification. Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the then President of the Family Division said this:
“From all the evidence provided to me, I have come to the clear conclusion that if the new identity of these claimants became public knowledge it would have disastrous consequences for the claimants, not only from intrusion and harassment but, far more important, the real possibility of serious physical harm and possible death from vengeful members of the public or from the Bulger family. If their new identities were discovered, I am satisfied that neither of them would have any chance of a normal life and that there is a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk.”
Similar relief was granted in the Mary Bell and Maxine Carr cases, to prevent the publication of the present name and address of the applicant who had assumed a new identity. X (A Woman Formerly Known As Mary Bell) & Anor v O’brien & Ors  EWHC 1101 (QB); Maxine Carr v News Group Newspapers  EWHC 971 (QB
A few months after the granting of the Venables and Thompson order in 2001, contempt proceedings were brought against the Manchester Evening News for publishing information that could lead to their identification in conjunction with other information on the internet. They were found to be in contempt for “jigsaw identification”: Venables and Thompson v News Group International & Ors  EWHC 530 (QB).
The injunction remains in force. It appears that the Attorney General was in contact with the “Sun” about the publication last week. However, this led the Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, to make a further public statement
“I said on Wednesday that I was unable to give further details of the reasons for Jon Venables’ return to custody, because it was not in the public interest to do so. That view was shared by the police and the DPP. We all feared a premature disclosure of information would undermine the integrity of the criminal justice process. Our motivation throughout has been solely to ensure that some extremely serious allegations are properly investigated and that justice is done. No one in this country would want anything other. That is what the authorities remain determined to do.”
Considerations of a possible breach of the injunction do not appear to have featured in this decision. However it has been reported that an injunction was issued against the Sun newspaper on Friday night to prevent it from printing a story detailing Venables’s alleged offences. There is clearly obvious danger of common law contempt i.e prejudicing the fair trial of criminal proceedings.
Nevertheless Today’s Sunday Mirror goes further than previously actually indentifying potential offences. This has been taken up by other media outlets and further speculation about Venables’ actions and the allegations against him is inevitable.
There is an increasing risk of Venables’ identity becoming more widely known. According to a story by Jamie Doward in the Observer today Venables “confessed his real identity to strangers as his mental state crumbled”. He points out that
“Only a handful of people are believed to know Venables’s identity but this is likely to have been compromised by his recent reintroduction into the judicial system. Relatively few people who have served a life sentence are recalled – last year there were only 89 – making it likely that Venables’s identity would have become common currency within the prison system even before he had started revealing it to others himself”.
The Mail On Sunday has published the account of the social worker who looked after Venables’ co-defendant, Robert Thompson, until he was released – including a photograph of the detention centre where he was kept and details of his behaviour and his personal development whilst in detention.
The media coverage of Venables’ arrest reveals a range of attitudes towards him and the programme of rehabilitation which he has undergone – from total disapproval to considerable sympathy. From a legal point of view, what is interesting is whether the Attorney General and/or the Ministry of Justice will take any further steps to enforce the original injunction and if not how long the 2001 “contra mundum” injunction can remain effective. At some point the application of the “Canute” principle (see Re Stedman  EWHC 935 (Fam)) will have to be considered: will the Court continue to try and protect the identities of individuals when these become known to a large section of the public?
The Children’s Secretary Ed Balls has warned on Sky News that the media may be close to breaking the law.