James Bulger’s father fails in legal bid to reveal information about Jon Venables



England and Wales High Court
England and Wales High Court

A judge has dismissed an application by the father of the late James Bulger to amend a lifelong anonymity order protecting the identity of one of his son’s killers.

Ralph Bulger wanted information about Jon Venables’ (JV) new identity to be made public after the murderer was jailed for possessing child abuse images, but the Family Division of the High Court in London ruled that the existing injunction should remain in place as there was evidence that there continued to be a “real risk of very substantial harm to JV”.

Two-year-old James Bulger was abducted, brutally tortured and then murdered in February 1993 by two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, in a crime that “profoundly shocked the nation”.

Injunction

The pair were convicted of the murder later that year and sentenced to detention for life, and injunctions were granted at that time to restrain publicity as to their circumstances during the remainder of their childhood.

In August 2000, when both JV and RT reached the age of 18 years, they applied to extend the anonymity injunction in order to provide protection on into their adult life.

Following a hearing of the application in 2001, which was contested by a number of media organisations, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss granted the application and made a wide-ranging order, unlimited in time, prohibiting publication of any image or other information likely to lead to their identification or whereabouts.

Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, heard that Mr Bulger applied for the order to be varied or discharged “to permit the reporting of the charges and convictions of the person formally known as Jon Venables”.

The court was told that in February 2010, having been at liberty on licence, JV was recalled to custody and charged as a result of the discovery of child pornography on his computer.

He pled guilty to three offences at a hearing in open court, during which reference was made to his whereabouts at the time of the commission of the offences, but the proceedings were conducted using his new identity.

Thereafter, an order under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 which had been was made at the outset of the proceedings to avoid the potential for prejudice, was lifted to permit reporting of the fact that the defendant in the case was the individual formally known as JV, and no further reference was made in court to his new identity or whereabouts.

At the conclusion of the criminal process, in civil proceedings in 2010 following a challenge by the media to allow them to publish his new identity, a judge, Bean J, granted an application by JV to amend the 2001 injunction by prohibiting the publication of information about his new name, appearance and location.

Then, in 2013, JV was again released on licence but was recalled to custody in 2017 following the discovery that he had again accumulated an extensive amount of child pornography on a computer, and had been in possession of a “paedophile manual”, for which he was sentenced to 40 months’ imprisonment.

‘Public interest’

In the present application, the late toddler’s father Ralph and uncle, James Bulger, were seeking removal of certain categories of information that were subject to the injunction.

In particular, they sought disclosure of any names used by JV prior to his recall to custody in 2017; information relating to the whereabouts and activities of JV up to and including his recall to custody in 2017; information relating to any release from custody and any subsequent recall to custody following JVs conviction in 2018; and information as to the location of where JV may, from time to time, be held in custody if the Secretary of State considered it in the public interest to disclose that information.

The applicants argued that there was a “public interest” in there being a full discussion of JV’s criminal activity so lessons may be learned with respect to the rehabilitation of criminals, and that the public had a “right to know” that an individual such as JV, who presented a risk to safety, has been living in a particular locality.

It was also argued that the applicants and other family members as victims had a right to be consulted about, and make submissions with respect to, decisions made relating to JV’s life licence.

The applicants further pleaded that a balance had to be struck between the rights of JV under Articles 2, 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the rights of the applicants and others to freedom of expression under ECHR Article 10.

The applicants’ lawyers argued that information about Venables identity was “readily available” online and therefore the law should not be protecting the disclosure of material which was “common knowledge”.

It was also submitted that JV should not be in a “better position” than any other individual convicted child pornography offences simply because his original conviction was one of child murder.

However, the judge observed that the purpose of the injunction was to protect JV from “being put to death” and ruled that the applicants had failed make the case for varying the order.

‘Real risk of substantial harm’

In a written judgment, Sir Andrew said: “The criminal justice system, in the form of the courts, the prison service, the Parole Board and the probation service has a statutory duty to monitor JV and make decisions with regard to the need to protect the public from harm. Irrespective of what one may think of JV, he, in common with every other citizen, has a right to be protected from serious threats to his life which may arise from individuals seeking to take the law into their own hands.”

The judge held that the central premise that JV’s name and image and locations with which he had been connected were already freely available on the internet had not been established. 

The applicants pointed to information available online, but the government’s position had been neither to confirm nor to deny the accuracy of any assertion made as to JV’s identity, and the court noted that there had been at least one entirely mistaken belief that an individual was JV, which resulted in the man and his family requiring to move home on a number of occasions, having been “forced to flee for their lives”.

“On the evidence that has been submitted in support of the applicants’ case, I am clear that no court could properly find as a fact that JV’s identity has been accurately described in material that is publicly available on the internet,” the judge said.

The court also considered that the evidence demonstrated that there had been no reduction in either the notoriety of JVs involvement in the murder of James Bulger or of the “strong feelings of anger and hatred” towards him following his recent criminal offending, and that it was wrong to suggest that JV was being put in a privileged position simply because he had been convicted of murder.

Furthermore, the development of social media in the nine years since the decision made by Bean J and the 18 years since the original injunction, and the content of recent postings, showed that there had been “no reduction in the level of risk”.

Sir Andrew concluded: “[W]hen an intense focus is maintained upon the nature and extent of the risk to JV under Articles 2 and 3, and on the comparative gravity of those risks and the Article 8 and 10 rights of the applicants and others on the other side of the scale, the gravity of the risks in this case come down very heavily in favour of continued confidentiality as to JVs identity and circumstances notwithstanding the ordinary goal of offences in the justice system.

“The purpose of the injunction is to protect JV from being put to death. As Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss held, JV is ‘uniquely notorious’ and there is a strong possibility, if not a probability, that if his identity were known he would be pursued resulting in grave and possibly fatal consequences. This is, therefore, a wholly exceptional case and the evidence in 2019 is more than sufficient to sustain the conclusion that there continues to be a real risk of very substantial harm to JV.”

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2019