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Botched judge threat probe downs Fathers 4 Justice website

Taxpayers stung for unjust email injunction

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Exclusive The government faces accusations of technical incompetence and waste after it went to the High Court and shut down the Fathers 4 Justice website, wrongly claiming campaigners had threatened to publish the home addresses of 237 judges.

Lawyers for Matt O'Connor, the controversial group's founder, are now preparing action against the Ministry of Justice to recover costs and damages from taxpayers. He alleges civil servants failed to perform basic checks on the origins of the threat before launching a legal attack.

The battle began in late June, when the Ministry of Justice received an email falsely purporting to come from O'Connor. It said Fathers 4 Justice would expose judges on its website as revenge for perceived unfairness in family court decisions.

Officials responsible for the security of HM Courts Service commissioned lawyers in the Treasury Solicitor's Department, which provides legal services across government, to get an emergency injuction against O'Connor, ordering him to shut down the Fathers 4 Justice website.

It was granted by the High Court on July 16. Failure to comply would have landed him in jail for contempt of court, so O'Connor duly took the website offline.

His lawyers immediately began an appeal against the injunction and fought for the Ministry of Justice to disclose the email at the centre of the case. Once they did, O'Connor said, it was obvious the threat did not come from him or the genuine Fathers 4 Justice website.

Last Wednesday 22 July, the government withdrew the injunction.

"I'm not a techie but any fool could have looked at the Message-ID and seen it was a fake - a 10-year-old could have done it," O'Connor told The Register, adding that no attempt was made to verify the email by contacting him directly.

"Someone there is either extremely gullible or vindictive."

In a statement, HM Courts Service said it was continuing to probe the threatening email.

"The injunction sought to prevent the publication of sensitive information. Following representations from the parties on the origins of the email, we have discontinued our injunction and are continuing our investigations elsewhere," it said.

O'Connor is now preparing defamation proceedings against the government because materials disclosed by the Ministry of Justice showed officials shared details about the fake email with other departments, and with the 237 judges threatened.

"All those judges think I made personal threats against them," he said.

Perceived threats to the security of the judiciary are taken very seriously. Earlier this year a Sheffield man was arrested because of his peripheral involvement in administering the activist website Indymedia.

Police demanded to know the identity of a user who posted the home address of a judge who had just handed down jail sentences in a landmark animal rights extremism trial. The man remains on police bail. ®

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