Police informers are often serious criminals themselves but, without their help, efforts to tackle organised crime would be gravely impeded. As a High Court ruling showed, it is necessary to incentivise them and, in extreme cases, that can involve providing them with new identities in order to protect them from acts of vengeance.
The case concerned a man who was once involved in serious organised crime. After he admitted numerous offences, including Class A drug offences, arson with intent to endanger life and burglary, he received a suspended prison sentence. The principal reason for his lenient treatment was that he was a so-called ‘supergrass’.
He had given evidence for the Crown in no fewer than five trials and one retrial, which together resulted in 29 people being convicted and sentenced to a total of 250 years’ imprisonment. He had also provided the police with the information that led to his own convictions.
The judge who sentenced him had no doubt that, due to his role as an informer, his life was in danger and that he would spend the rest of his days constantly looking over his shoulder. He and two of his female relatives, who were also at risk, had since been living at secret locations, under new names.
Tight restrictions were imposed on reporting of cases in which he was involved that, amongst other things, forbade publication of any information that might lead to the identification of him or his whereabouts. When those restrictions were about to expire, he obtained an emergency injunction.
Extending that order on an interim basis, the Court noted the real risk that he would be punished or killed by vengeful organised criminals because of the public service he had performed in helping to convict them. Affording him the protection of an injunction would tend to support and incentivise informers generally, to the benefit of the criminal justice system and the welfare of the community.
The Court noted that the threat against him did not arise from his crimes, but rather from his activities as an informer. It was not a case of misguided vigilantes seeking to impose additional punishment upon him for his offences. His human rights, not least his right to life, were engaged and restrictions on media reporting of cases in which he had played a part were proportionate and justified.
The interim injunction, which bound the whole world, prohibited publication of photos, images or any other material that identified, or purported to identify, him or his two female relatives. Soliciting such information would also constitute a breach of the order. The Court gave directions for a further hearing at which a permanent injunction would be sought.
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