LAW REPORT v 16 July 1997; Police entitled to warn about paedophiles

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The Independent Online
Regina v Chief Constable of North Wales Police and ors, ex parte AB and anor; Queen's Bench Divisional Court (Lord Bingham, Lord Chief Justice and Mr Justice Buxton) 10 July 1997

A police policy under which information was disclosed to a caravan site owner about the presence of convicted paedophiles on his site was not unlawful. A general policy of disclosure could not, however be justified.

The Divisional Court dismissed the application of AB and his wife CD for judicial review of the policy of the North Wales Police ("NWP") in relation to the release of information about paedophiles in their area, and of the decision of the Wrexham police on 27 March 1997 to inform the owner of a local caravan site of the applicants' presence at the site.

The applicants had been released from prison in July 1996 after serving sentences for sexual offences involving children. They had attempted to settle in Northumberland and in Colwyn Bay, but had been forced to leave both areas after adverse publicity in local newspapers and angry responses from neighbours. They bought a caravan and moved on to a site near Wrexham in October 1996.

In March 1977, having been informed of the applicants' history by the local police, the owner of the site told the applicants to leave.

Stephen Solley QC and Jonathan Crystal (Michael Purdon, Newcastle-upon- Tyne) for the applicants; Presiley Baxendale QC and Pushpinder Saini (Police Solicitor) for NWP; James Eadie (Treasury Solicitor) for the Secretary; Michael Douglas QC (Eversheds, Birmingham) for NACRO.

Lord Bingham CJ said that in January 1997 the NWP had received a copy of a report from the Northumbria Police, the purpose of which was to alert recipients to the danger which the applicants were thought to present to children and vulnerable adults within the community where they settled, whom it was thought they would target and procure for sexual abuse. It was important to record that the applicants strongly challenged a number of important factual statements in the report.

A member of the NWP Child Protection Team was concerned at the risk the applicants might present if they remained at the caravan site during the Easter holidays when a large number of young children were expected to be there. Following a number of meetings it was decided that the site owner should be informed of the applicants' background.

There had been serious concern in North Wales since the end of 1995 at the risk of re-offending by convicted paedophiles following release from prison, and a policy was formulated to deal with its response to such a situation. The policy provided for disclosure, on a need to know basis, of information which was believed to be necessary for the protection of potential victims of crime. Most of the policy was directed to the release of information to schools and education authorities.

The present case illustrated, in an acute way, the tension which might arise between the interests of a former sex offender and the interests of the community.

It was submitted for the respondents that a policy adopted by the police to guide its conduct when problems arose on the release of a convicted paedophile into the community should observe three important principles: there was a general principle that information should not be disclosed; there was a strong public interest in ensuring that police were able to disclose information about offenders where necessary for the prevention or detection of crime ot the protection of young people; and each case must be considered carefully on its particular facts.

Those principles seemed to be consistent with the statutory policy expressed in section 28(1) of the Data Protection Act 1984 and with the policy recognised by the court in R v Brown (Gregory) [1994] QB 547 and Hellewell v Chief Constable of Derbyshire [1995] 1 WLR 804. Judged against those tests, the policy adopted by the NWP was not open to legal challenge.

Although the policy and conduct of the NWP in the present case fell well within the bounds of legality, the applicants had drawn attention to a pressing social problem. It was not acceptable that those who had undergone the lawful punishment imposed by the courts sould be the subject of intimidation and private vengeance, harried from parish to parish like paupers under the old Poor Law. It was not only in their interest but in the interest of society as a whole that they should be enabled to live normal lives. While the risk of repeat ofending might in some circumstances justify a very limited measure of official disclosure, a general policy of disclosure could never be justified, and the media should be slow to obstruct the rehabilitation of ex-offenders who had not offended again and were seriously bent on reform.

Kate O'Hanlon, Barrister

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