Supreme Court lifts injunction on Autobiography

Legal matters normally fall outside the scope of this blog, except for a brief guide to copyright, however, this particular case is of interest to writers, particularly those who base their poems on personal experience, autobiography or memoir.

In the case [2015] UKSC 32 concerning James Rhodes v OPO and another, the Supreme Court had to consider an appeal against an injunction which prevented the publication of an autobiography in the form it had been written. The full judgement and press summary are here.

A father had written his autobiography which graphically detailed extensive abuse (including rape) he’d been subjected to as a child. Knowledge of this abuse was already in the public domain because the father, a concert pianist, author and film maker, had referred to it in interviews which were widely available and could be easily found through internet searches. The autobiography was dedicated to his son and would be available as an ebook and printed book in the father’s resident country. The son lived with his mother in a different country and the father didn’t intend the son to read it until he was old enough to understand it. The son has diagnosed disabilities in processing information and a consultant child psychologist concluded he would suffer psychological harm and emotional distress if he saw the content of the book. An interim injunction was granted so that the claim that publication of the book in its current form would intentionally cause harm to the son.

The Supreme Court allowed the injunction to be lifted. The essential grounds for this were that the father had the right to tell his story in his own words so publication of the book was justified providing it complied with laws concerning for example confidentiality. However, there was no law preventing the publication of factual material, even if it was graphic and distressing. The book was intended for a general audience, not just the son. Consideration was also given to the wording of the injunction which was found not to be specific enough. It is worth reading the judgement for the full conclusion. I’ve only mentioned the aspects that are of wider interest.

This is a welcome judgement. It acknowledges that where a writer seeks to publish a poem, story or memoir based on autobiographical facts, the writer is free to do so providing laws on confidentiality and non-provocation of hatred are respected. Another party will not succeed in obtaining an injunction to prevent publication on the basis that someone who is not the intended audience could suffer psychological harm or severe emotional distress (here that means a recognised psychological illness resulting from emotional distress; not just a one-off emotive reaction).

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