Global Freedom of Expression

Goodwin v. United Kingdom

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    March 27, 1996
  • Outcome
    Law or Action Upheld
  • Case Number
    No. 17488/90
  • Region & Country
    United Kingdom, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

In this landmark case, the European Court of Human Rights found that a request for disclosure of a confidential source in a journalistic context was an impermissible violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The applicant was a trainee journalist who received sensitive information regarding the financial state of a company which appeared to come from a confidential corporate plan, one copy of which had gone missing. The Court found that injunctions to prevent the publication of the information could be considered “necessary in a democratic society” but disclosure of the source of said information was unnecessary. The Court noted the importance of protecting journalistic sources for press freedom and reasoned that disclosure would produce a chilling effect in society, unless disclosure is justified by public interest. 


The applicant was a trainee journalist with The Engineer magazine, who received confidential information regarding the financial state of a company, Tetra Ltd. The source provided the information through telephone, and wished to remain anonymous. The information was unsolicited and was not given in exchange for any payment. It was provided on an unattributable basis. The information itself appeared to come from a confidential corporate plan, one copy of which had gone missing.

On 22 November 1989, Mr. Justice Hoffmann ordered the applicant to disclose by 3 p.m. on 23 November his notes on the grounds that it was necessary “in the interests of justice,” within the meaning of section 10 of the 1981 Act, for the source’s identity to be disclosed in order to enable Tetra to bring proceedings against the source to recover the document, obtain an injunction preventing further publication or seek damages for the expenses to which it had been put. (Para 15)

The applicant appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Appeal and House of Lords. He refused to disclose his source and was fined £5,000 for contempt. He complained of a violation of Article 10 of the Convention. (Para 19)

Decision Overview


The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) in its judgment found that, because the publication of the confidential information was already prohibited by injunction, the order for disclosure of the source was not “necessary in a democratic society” as required by Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). Accordingly, the order breached Article 10 ECHR. (Para 37)

The company’s legitimate reasons for wishing disclosure, namely to prevent further dissemination of the confidential information (other than by publication) and to take action against the source who was presumed to be an employee, were outweighed by the interest of a free press in a democratic society (para 38). If journalists are forced to reveal their sources the role of the press as public watchdog could be seriously undermined because of the chilling effect that such disclosure would have on the free flow of information (para 39).

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The decision in the case serves as more protection of journalists’ sources. This would avoid the potential chilling effect for confidential sources to approach the journalists, having no fear of their identity to be disclosed, especially with regards to sensitive information.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Related International and/or regional laws

General Law Notes


Local Law
Contempt of Court Act 1981, sections 10, 14
Norwich Pharmacal Co. v. Customs and Excise Commissioners [1974] Appeal Cases 133
Secretary of State for Defence v. Guardian Newspapers Ltd [1985] Appeal Cases 339
British Steel Corporation v. Granada Television

Case Significance

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:

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