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Joshua Rozenberg
Tuesday 4th January 2011
A victory for free speech
The Office for Judicial Complaints (OJC) has abandoned its attempts to stop complainants from releasing its findings to reporters, according to the body that supervises its work.

For some time now, the OJC has carried the following rubric on decision letters it sends to people who complain about judges:

RESTRICTED — This information is intended for the recipient only and should not be copied to a wider audience without the permission of the author.

This rubric is presumably intended to discourage complainants from speaking to the media. The letters that complainants receive from the complaints body generally contain information that is not made routinely available to reporters.

In March 2010, the OJC wrote to a complainant telling her that her complaint against a junior member of the judiciary responsible for administrative rulings in the High Court had been substantiated.

Glory Anne Clibbery had complained that Master Foster had not tape-recorded all hearings over which he had presided. The OJC said that the Lord Chief Justice had consequently issued formal advice to Master Foster reminding him of the requirement to ensure that an audio recording was made of all court proceedings before him.

This turns out not to have been true. Although the OJC caseworker's letter of 4 March 2010 clearly says 

The Lord Chief Justice has consequently issued formal advice to Master Foster ...

the Judicial Communications Offfice tells me that Master Foster received informal advice. There is a difference. 

Miss Clibbery complained to the Judicial Appointments and Complaints Ombudsman of the attempt to "gag" her, arguing that a decision letter from the OJC should be as public as a court ruling. She pointed out that she had won something of a victory for free speech in the family courts in 2001, in the case of Clibbery v Allan (see Allan v Clibbery 2002).

In a letter dated December 24, an investigating officer from the ombudsman's office said that Miss Clibbery's concerns about the "restricted" marking on the foot of OJC correspondence had been discussed with the OJC. The letter continued:

I understand that the OJC no longer marks its correspondence in this way. It has also accepted that it cannot prevent you from disseminating its correspondence to a wider audience.

The letter from the ombudsman's office to Miss Clibbery was marked "Private and Confidential".

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About Joshua Rozenberg

Joshua Rozenberg is an independent legal commentator who presents Law in Action on BBC Radio 4.

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