After a deluge of unattributed speculation and rumour about Jon Venables and a statement from then Lord Chancellor Jack Straw, it is now clear that that he has been charged with downloading child porn images. There have also been three hearings recently concerning the criminal proceedings that have been brought against Jon Venables. Reporting restrictions were initially imposed by Mr Justice Bean, continued and then subsequently partially lifted. We will begin by recalling the background and then deal with the recent orders.
Background- Trial, Conviction and Release 1993 -2001
The media frenzy over the Jon Venables cases has brought the issue of media responsibility into sharp focus. It is worth recalling the basic facts about his case:
- in 1993 a two year old child was abducted, tortured and murdered by two 10 year olds.
- the two boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were arrested in February 1993 and detained pending trial. The trial was heard at Preston Crown Court from 1st November 1993 over three weeks before a judge and Jury and during this time their identities were anonymized.
- At the outset, the defendants counsel made the submission that the proceedings be stayed on the grounds that the trial would be unfair because of the nature and extent of the media coverage.
- On 24 November 1993 Venables and Thompson convicted of murder and the trial Judge Morland J ordered that their identities should be revealed but restrained publication of the addresses where the two boys were to be detained and any other information about the whereabouts care or treatment;
- they were sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, and the Judge recommended a minimum term of 8 years, subsequently increased to 10 and then to 15 by the Home Secretary after a petition by the Sun Newspaper and others. Judicial review was sought in respect of this decision and it was overturned by the House of Lords.
- In December 1999, the European Court Of Human Rights held that there had been violations of articles 5 and 6 of the Convention since the Tariff had been set by the Home Secretary who was not independent of the executive and the subsequent failure to set a new tariff meant that the applicant had been deprived of the opportunity of reviewing the lawfulness of his detention. The decision is available here
- In February 2001 the President of the Family Division Dame Butler-Sloss in the High Court granted an injunction to prevent the publication of information as to the new identities of Venables and Thompson on the basis there was a “real possibility of serious physical harm and possible death from vengeful members of the public or from the Bulger family” (see our earlier post here).
- in June 2001 the Parole Board ordered the release of Venables and Thompson on licence;
Release On Licence 2001 -2010
Venables was the young perpetrator of a dreadful crime – in nearly every other country in the European Union he would have been below the age of criminal responsibility, see the House of Commons Research Paper here. It was accepted by the Courts that his life and safety were at risk from “vigilantes” and he was given a new identity. For the last 9 years he has been living a supervised life – presumably away from his family and having to lie about his background.
Return To Prison In 2010
On 2 March 2010, it was disclosed that Venables had been returned to prison for an unspecified violation of his licence. The then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, originally said that the public was entitled to know “all the facts” about Venables’ return to prison but shortly afterwards, the Ministry of Justice said that it was “genuinely in the public interest” for the information to remain secret. Since then, there has been a media frenzy, with a series of “revelations” about the nature of the licence breach and the “serious allegations” being made against Venables. The former Justice Secretary Jack Straw made a statement to the House of Commons and said that he had given “active thought” about releasing more information but concluded it “would not presently be in the interests of justice”. Explaining his decision, Mr Straw said: “It is critical that if charges do follow, it is possible to hold a fair trial – fair for the defence and fair for the prosecution.” The motivation was to ensure “extremely serious allegations are properly investigated” and that “justice is done”, he told MPs, adding: “No one in this country would want anything other.”
There was a media frenzy, with endless speculation as to the reason why Venables has been recalled and the publication of a number of items of information about him. There have been interviews with a number of individuals who were said to have known Jon Venables since his conviction.
There were a number of issues in play. There was the original 2001 injunction and concerns that even piecemeal identification could be a breach of this injunction. There was also the potential for “contempt of court” in relation to pending criminal proceedings. There will be contempt if there is a “substantial risk” that the course of justice in proceedings will be seriously impeded or prejudiced – this will be the case if the prejudice would justify a discharge of a jury. This only applies to “active” criminal proceedings. Even if there were, it is an interesting question as to whether the revelation of Venables’ new identity would “impede or prejudice” any prosecution. It is difficult to see how Venables could have a fair trial if his new identity were to be disclosed.
First and Second Hearing 21 May and 2 June 2010
It appears from the Daily Mail and other reports that on 21st May, nearly three months after being returned to prison, an injunction was granted by Mr Justice Bean that prevented all media from revealing the new identity given to Venables, any information about his whereabouts and any picture or description of him. It also banned any information about criminal proceedings or the nature of the Crown’s case. In hindsight this May order had appeared to step the media frenzy that was raging against Venables. A further hearing took place on 2nd June 2010, listed as Re X, at which the order was continued.
Third Hearing 21st June
It appears that on 21st June after representations to the Judge from the media, the May order was varied to allow reporting of the fact and some detail about the charges and that there would be a public hearing where Venables will appear via videolink at the Old Bailey on 23rd July to enter a plea. As the Daily Mail reported in an article the next day;
“One of the killers of James Bulger has been charged with downloading child porn, it was revealed yesterday. Jon Venables, now 27, now faces up to ten years back in prison. He is accused of downloading 57 indecent images of children from the internet and distributing seven images by allowing others to access files on his computer through a ‘peer-to-peer network’.
The charges can be disclosed after a ban on reporting the case was partially lifted by a High Court judge, following a challenge by a number of media organisations….
But Mr Justice Bean lifted the restrictions yesterday in the interests of open justice. Next month Venables will make his first appearance in a public arena since his conviction in November 1993 for murdering two-year-old James….
The hearing was held in private, but Mr Justice Bean allowed the charges to be reported. Gavin Millar, QC, prosecuting said: ‘The first count, the making of indecent photographs, covers downloading on to his own computer. Count two covers the distribution through the internet of indecent images.”
Although the hearing was in private, it appears that the Judge continued the order preventing all media from revealing the new name identity given to Venables, any information about his whereabouts and any picture or description of him. However there is an obvious concern given the frenzied media reporting as to whether a fair trial of the charges against Venables is possible.
There have been brief media reports of these two hearings, and the second hearing was attended by the media. A number of important issues about the balance between open justice and fair trial rights were clearly debated at these hearings. In these circumstances, it is unfortunate that no judgment has been released to inform the public about what has happened. This could, we assume, be made public in a suitably redacted form in order to protect the fairness of of the Court proceedings which have been started and the rights of those persons affected.