Staff at Aldershot Magistrates’ Court acted unlawfully by excluding people from watching a trial, senior judges have ruled.

Managers and magistrates had told supporters of Matt O’Connor, founder of equal parenting rights campaign group Fathers4Justice, to leave the building when he appeared on February 20 2015 to stand trial on a public order charge.

Mr O’Connor sought a judicial review by the High Court of Justice, which on Friday (November 4) issued a ruling criticising the decision to hold the trial behind closed doors and concluding that ‘no valid proceedings in (the) trial took place on that day’.

The judgment could yet be appealed in the Supreme Court by government solicitors acting for Aldershot Magistrates' Court (AMC) as well as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which were listed as interested parties in the judicial review.

Mr O’Connor has always denied the charge of using threatening or abusive words or behaviour. Following the High Court’s decision, he claimed the case against him, which began in September 2014, was ‘politically motivated’.

'Treated like a terrorist'

“Secrecy is the basis of dictatorships, not democracy,” he said. “The court (AMC) and HMCTS have provided no evidence whatsoever to support their malicious, fabricated and politically motivated actions. They have treated me like a terrorist.

“It is preposterous to claim – as the police, CPS and HMCTS do – that these extraordinary sanctions, which have led to this case lasting for more than two years, relate to a minor public order offence.

“Given their conduct and ongoing committal proceedings against court staff, I can have no confidence that I will receive a fair trial in Hampshire.”

Aldershot Magistrates Court
Aldershot Magistrates' Court

The judicial review hearings were held last month before Lord Justice Fulford and Mr Justice Leggatt.

Mr O’Connor was represented by open justice campaigner Dr Michael Pelling.

In their ruling last week, the judges said: “Mr O’Connor’s case had aroused a strong interest, not only among some supporters of his organisation but also among some individuals involved in local Hampshire politics.

“To prevent all the people who came to support Mr O’Connor, without any valid reason, from exercising their right to observe proceedings not only created a strong and understandable sense of grievance but had the consequence that justice could not be seen to be done.”

'Behind closed doors'

They concluded that, as the trial at Aldershot was adjourned before the prosecution had opened its case, it was unnecessary to officially quash the proceedings held behind closed doors.

They added: “In view of the importance of the principle at stake, we nevertheless think it right to record our conclusion in a declaratory judgment.”

Mr O’Connor said the judgment reaffirmed that the authority of the judiciary and courts was ‘not to be usurped by bureaucrats’.

“It is in the interests of open justice that case law is established ensuring every person on trial has a right to a hearing in open court and that they are treated equally in the eyes of the law,” he said.

'Secrecy is the enemy of justice'

“Being a campaigner for equal parenting rights for dads is not a reason to deny that right. What happened in February 2015 must never be permitted to happen again. Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done. Secrecy is the enemy of justice.”

Among those excluded from the trial was independent Hampshire county councillor Tony Hooke, who said Mr O’Connor’s family felt that members of the county council, Hampshire Constabulary and the county’s judiciary system were ‘against them’.

“I went with an open mind to see that justice was done, and I wasn’t allowed in court,” he said.

“The judgment shows quite clearly we were in the right and should have been in open court.”