Free speech reigns Supreme
Mark Stephens witnesses an important victory at the UK's new top court
05 Oct 09

This is a guest post by Mark Stephens

The new Supreme Court, in its first ruling on an issue of law, has decided that open justice requires the naming of Mohammed al Ghabra, whom the lower courts had protected by anonymity orders. In the first contested issue before the new court, Mr Geoffrey Robertson QC told the judges on behalf of the media “[Y]our first term docket reads like alphabet soup”, referring to the number of appellants referred to only by letters of the alphabet, because they had been granted “pseudonym orders” by lower courts.

Robertson said the Court of Appeal had made the order in al Ghabra’s case without giving notice to the press, without hearing evidence and without giving reasons in breach of the open justice principle. He said that everyone who commences a legal action should expect to have their name published. He said the four appellants in this case had “outed” themselves by issuing press statements from behind their “cloaks of anonymity” condemning the government and complaining about the oppressive effects of orders freezing their assets because they were suspected terrorist financiers.

Lord Phillips, on behalf of the seven Supreme Court Justices, ruled that Mr al Ghabra, previously known only as G, should be named. The other three appellants, known only as “A”, “B” and “M”, would be allowed to put in evidence as to why they should be allowed to remain anonymous: their position will be decided later this week, before the appeal ends.

The court received witness statements from David Leigh of the Guardian, Sean O’Neill, The Times crime and security editor and Edward Lucas of the Economist, explaining that press coverage would be more detailed and more understandable for readers who are not lawyers if newspapers could report the human interest dimension in the case. It would be in the interest of educating the public about cases in the new court if the effects of anti-terrorism orders on suspects could be reported with their names and details of the effects of the order upon them.

Lord Phillips said the question of whether litigants should be allowed anonymity raised “an important constitutional issue”. Mr al Ghabra has complained that the order freezing his assets was invalid and oppressive: his solicitor has said that if it is upheld, then “the sun will have set on British democracy”. It was widely reported that Mr al Ghabra was referred to in evidence in the airline bomb plot, as a person with whom the plotters had been in touch.