Privacy rights after death

Posted: 19th June 2014

PrivacyIn a landmark decision of enormous importance to the reporting of many sensitive cases, the Court of Protection has ruled for the first time that individual rights of privacy are capable of extending beyond the grave.

The case concerned a Jehovah’s Witness (A) who had refused a life-saving blood transfusion. The Court found that she had the mental capacity to make decisions in respect of her treatment and granted permission to doctors to withhold blood products in accordance with her religious beliefs.

As is the almost universal practice in such cases, the Court ordered that A should not be identified in any reports of the proceedings. A died on the same day that judgment was handed down in the case and, in those circumstances, the Press Association sought permission to name A in reporting the matter.

In granting that application, the Court noted that nothing that emerged during the proceedings was particularly confidential or reflected to the discredit of A. There was a proper interest in the name of a person who dies being a matter of public record and in the press being permitted to report such cases. The right to privacy was only likely to outweigh such considerations in ‘very special circumstances’.

However, in giving guidance for the future, the Court found that there was no good reason why all the protection afforded by an anonymity order should automatically come to an end on a person’s death. Noting that litigants should not be deterred from going to court out of fear that any privacy would automatically lapse on death, the Court found that it had ‘not only a right but a duty’ to weigh up the competing factors in deciding whether reporting restrictions should be lifted.