On 3 November 2014 Will Cornick was sentenced to a minimum of 20 years imprisonment for the murder of his teacher Ann Maguire, after stabbing her in front of her own class. Aged 15 when he committed the crime, he expressed no remorse and it became clear during the trial that he suffered from a type of personality disorder.
Some commentators have expressed doubts over the appropriateness of imposing such a lengthy custodial sentence on a child. But an interesting aspect of the case of R v Cornick  EWHC 3623 (QB) and one deserving criticism, is the decision of Coulson J to drop the reporting restrictions on Mr Cornick’s identity.
Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (CYPA) empowers the Court to prohibit newspapers from revealing a child or young person’s identity. Such an order was made a few days after the murder but The Sun newspaper had already flouted what used to be convention by publishing Mr Cornick’s name before the Court had a chance to rule.
After sentencing the defence applied for the s.39 order to be extended. Media organisations, led by The Guardian newspaper contested this. An argument based on the right to life under Article 2 ECHR was rejected on the basis that any risk was either too vague (the risk of attack from other inmates) or insufficient (the defendant was on suicide watch) for the claim to succeed. Of greater interest is the balancing exercise between the offender’s welfare under s.44 CYPA and Article 8 ECHR and the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 ECHR.
The judge noted the principles identified by Simon Brown LJ in R v Winchester Crown Court ex parte B (A Minor)  1 WLR 788 including that:
- “Considerable weight” is to be given to the age of the offender, in particular the potential damage of a young person being identified as a criminal before they reach adulthood.
- The court must “have regard to the welfare of the child or young person” (under s.44 CYPA).
- Being named in court, with the “accompanying disgrace” is a “powerful deterrent” that it is proper for the Court to pursue.
- There is a “strong public interest in open justice and in the public knowing as much as possible about what happened in court” including the identity of the perpetrator.
In lifting the restrictions Coulson J quoted authority to the effect that s.33 CYPA is not concerned with rehabilitation and rejected the idea that rehabilitation would be made more difficult. He noted that publication had already occurred and that the anonymity order would only last until Mr Cornick turned 18 in 2016. Crucially, on the public interest argument, he said:
“This is an exceptional case. Public interest has been huge. There are wider issues at stake such as the safety of teachers, the possibility of American-style security measures in schools and the dangers of ‘internet loners’ concocting violent fantasies”.
It is submitted that here the judge gave in to the worst aspects of media culture. There was no reason why the above could not be properly discussed without reference to Mr Cornick’s identity. The judge noted that he came from a normal, loving family rather than a dysfunctional one. But it is likely that the newspapers could have used that detail if they scrupulously omitted others that would allow readers to ‘jigsaw’ together the offender’s identity.
One must also question the logical coherence of the ‘public interest’ factors mentioned. This was indeed an exceptional case, mercifully rare in British schools, which gives the lie to the notion that there is a serious wider public debate about teacher safety or the dangers that ‘internet loners’ pose to the public. In reality the interest of the media probably has more to do with the sort of macabre fascination with child killers of the sort last seen with the murder of James Bulger in 1993.
This is not to say that the decision was necessarily wrong in law, but it reflects the worrying erosion of the distinction between children and adults within the justice system. We saw this reflected in the judge’s view that generally defendants in criminal cases will be named unless there is “absolute necessity for anonymity”. One could argue that this ignores the spirit of Article 3(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Child which states that in the courts the “best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”, though it perhaps reflects the underdevelopment of this aspect of the law on the Rights of the Child.
Will Cornick committed a most horrific crime, but a civilised society should distinguish between the moral capacity of children and adults. At the very least this requires more robust reasoning before we permit a child to be ‘named and shamed’ in this way.