Northern Ireland

Judge rules Twitter risk in Iris Robinson legal case

Iris Robinson
Image caption Iris Robinson's legal hearing will be held in private over fears that details may be tweeted.

Former MP Iris Robinson's bid to ban surveillance and publication of her medical treatment must be held in private, a senior NI judge has ruled.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan made the ruling because "potential internet disclosure could increase the threat of self-harm or suicide".

He said the development of Twitter and social networking sites meant a danger of information leaking from open court.

He said this was possible "even with reporting restrictions imposed".

In a judgment released on Tuesday evening, he stated that Mrs Robinson's right to life under the European Convention on Human Rights meant her application for a long-term injunction must take place behind closed doors.

Sir Declan, sitting in the Court of Appeal with Lord Justices Higgins and Girvan, said: "We are satisfied that we should take judicial notice of the fact that social networking sites, Twitter and the internet generally now provides an alternative means of publication to traditional daily or Sunday newspapers.

"Although the numbers of persons to whom the publication is made may be considerably less than the circulation of a popular Sunday newspaper, publication on the internet is difficult to control and in particular the source of the publication may be outside the jurisdiction of the court.

"The hearing of the application will inevitably involve the discussion of aspects of the appellant's treatment and condition.

"We consider that there is a real danger that if these proceedings were open to the public the information disclosed in the hearing would be disseminated on the internet even if a reporting restriction was imposed."

Mrs Robinson, the wife of First Minister Peter Robinson, quit politics amid revelations about her extra-marital affair.

The former Strangford MP suffered severe mental ill-health and depression following revelations about her private life.

She issued a writ for breach of confidence/misuse of private information, harassment and breach of her rights after the Sunday World newspaper published articles and photographs of her in London.

She is also seeking an injunction to prevent future surveillance, photographs being taken of her while she receives medical treatment, and publication of information about her mental health.

The case was listed on Tuesday for a three-day trial in November.

Last month the Court of Appeal gave its verdict on why the hearing should be in private, but only now have the reasons contained in a redacted judgment been made known.

Sir Declan set out how an unidentified doctor gave evidence that media attention would increase the risk of self harm or suicide.

"He also stated that if as a result of a public hearing her medical condition and ongoing treatment were to become widely known or she had a reasonable apprehension that these matters were liable to become more widely known her mental health would deteriorate, there would be a materially increased risk of suicide or self harm, her treatment would be prejudiced and her recovery impeded," the judge said.

Lawyers for Mrs Robinson argued that a judge who first heard the case did not take into account the full range of media in which damaging information could leak out if the hearing was in open court.

It was submitted that a reporting restriction was not enough, and that insufficient consideration was given to both the old-fashioned method of word of mouth in a small jurisdiction and the new media of Twitter and social-networking sites.

Users of these forms of communication were likely to be less respectful of a reporting ban and harder to enforce against than the traditional media, according to Mrs Robinson's legal team.

It was also argued that internet publication could take place outside the jurisdiction and that the local court could not control such publication.

Sir Declan ruled: "In light of the risk of publication identified... and the potential consequences of such publication by way of harm to the appellant we consider on the material before us that the positive obligation under Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires us to direct a private hearing of the application for the continuation of the injunction."

He added: "We should make it clear that the appellant has not sought anonymity in these proceedings nor sought to conceal from the public the fact that she is bringing these proceedings."