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Legal case

An interim injunction against the world for a police informant

The persons formerly known as (1) Craig Winch, (2) Debbie Winch and (3) Carol Winch v Persons Unknown [2021] EWHC1328 (QB)

The persons formerly known as (1) Craig Winch, (2) Debbie Winch and (3) Carol Winch v Persons Unknown [2021] EWHC1328 (QB)

Executive summary

Weightmans acted on behalf of the claimants in obtaining an interim injunction against Persons Unknown (a contra mundum injunction) who, the High Court held, were at a significant and weighty risk of death or very serious violence should members of Organised Crime Groups or their associates locate and identify them.

Background

Craig Winch (now living under a new name) used to be involved in serious and organised crime. On 1 April 2021, Mr Winch was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years as a result of pleading guilty to 23 offences including Class A drug offences, arson with intent to endanger life, and burglary. The sentence was far less than the ordinary sentencing guidelines would suggest, partly because Mr Winch was an Assisting Offender under section 73 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. An Assisting Offender is more commonly known as an informer or, in Mr Winch’s case, a “supergrass”.

Mr Winch’s role as an Assisting Offender has led to 29 people being convicted and sentenced to a total of some 250 years’ imprisonment. Mr Winch also provided information that led to his own convictions. As a result of Mr Winch’s significant assistance, the sentencing judge remarked to Mr Winch that, “If your life was not in danger before, I am absolutely certain that it is nowI am certain that, in your case, the risk is genuine and cannot be understated… Wherever you live you will spend your life constantly having to look over your shoulder and in fear.

To protect Mr Winch, and two female relatives, Reporting Restriction Orders were made in the Crown Court pursuant to section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 but they cannot be imposed indefinitely. As a result, the claimants were required to seek an injunction to prevent information leading to their names being revealed.

The decision

The court granted an interim injunction, having been satisfied that the narrow band of exceptional circumstances identified as the Venables[1] jurisdiction applied (whereby an individual’s Convention Rights could be protected by extension of the law of confidence) despite a number of notable differences to recent Venables jurisdiction matters these differences being:

  • The threat to the claimants did not arise from Mr Winch’s crimes but from his conduct as an informer and a witness.
  • The threat is not that misguided vigilantes will impose additional punishment on Mr Winch for his criminal acts. The risk is that all the claimants will be punished by organised criminals because of the good that Mr Winch has done by helping to convict them.
  • The threat is one of violent and indiscriminate revenge for an act of public service.
  • The granting of such an order will tend to support and incentivise informers, to the benefit of the criminal justice system and the welfare of the community.

In granting an interim injunction, the court acknowledged that four Convention Rights were engaged: the rights to life, protection from torture, respect for private life and, on the other hand, freedom of expression (Articles 2, 3, 8 and 10 respectively) but did not consider that the grave risks to the claimants’ Convention Rights fall to be balanced against the free speech rights of those who will be affected by the interim injunction. Applying re Guardian News and Media Limited [2010] UKSC 1, “a newspaper does not have the right to publish information at the known potential cost of an individual being killed or maimed”.

Comment

The interim injunction has resulted in some derogations from the ordinary rule that the media may report everything that takes place in court. Lord Justice Warby acknowledged that the media’s ability to report on cases before the court “is a strong rule, and any exceptions need clear and cogent justification” but, in this instance, the evidence before the court was “cogent and powerful” demonstrating a “significant and weighty risk” to the claimants.

[1] Venables v News Group Newspapers Limited [2001] Fam 430

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