UK
28/07/2013 10:47 BST

Al-Hilli Children Of Alps Murder Victims Can Be Brought Up By Relatives, Judge Rules

Two sisters orphaned when their parents and grandmother were shot dead while on holiday in the French Alps nine months ago can be brought up by relatives, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice Baker has approved a plan for Zainab and Zeena Al-Hilli to be cared for by two members of their extended family following a private hearing in the Family Division of the High Court in London.

He has announced his decision in a statement after analysing issues surrounding the girls' welfare and hearing evidence from social workers and police.

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Floral tributes and a teddy bear from well wishers are placed at the house of the al-Hilli family

The girls' father Saad, mother Ikbal, Mrs Al-Hilli's mother Suhaila al-Allaf and French cyclist Sylvain Mollier were murdered by a gunman on a remote mountain road near Annecy in September 2012. Zainab, then seven, was badly hurt and Zeena, then four, escaped without injury after apparently hiding behind her mother's skirt.

The girls and their parents had lived in Claygate, Surrey.

Mr Justice Baker has said the girls can be named in media reports but he has ruled that any detail of their whereabouts must remain secret.

"I am authorising publication of (a) short summary of my decision ... including the names of the girls," said Mr Justice Baker in the statement. "However, reporting of any further detail of the circumstances of the girls and of the arrangements for their care remains prohibited."

The judge added: "It is plainly in their interests to be brought up within their natural family. Such a placement will sustain links with their family background and may help them over time to come to terms with their tragic loss."

He said the girls would be subject to police protection.

Mr Justice Baker said a line of inquiry being pursued by French police investigating the shootings had been the possible involvement of a brother of Saad, Zaid Al-Hilli.

The judge said Zaid Al-Hilli had been assigned the status of "suspect", arrested, interviewed and released on bail.

Mr Justice Baker dismissed an application by Surrey Police for journalists to be excluded from the hearing after The Sunday Times newspaper argued that there was a "strong public interest" in the "bracing effect" of the press being present.

Mr Justice Baker said Surrey Police had argued that exclusion of the press was necessary for the "safety and protection" of the girls and their carers and said the presence of journalists would impede or impair justice.

Police said the girls' lives could be at risk and argued that the presence of journalists at the High Court hearing would increase that risk.

Senior officers also said there was a risk that "leakage" from the hearing might "jeopardise" the investigation into the killings and any trial in France.

Times Newspapers - publishers of The Sunday Times - said police had failed to provide evidence to "merit the exceptional step of excluding the press from the hearing".

Lawyers for journalists said there was a strong public interest in the "'bracing effect' of the press being present at any hearing", a strong public interest in the press being able to observe and consider the interactions between French and English authorities and a clear interest that the workings of the family courts should be transparent and open to press inspection so as to "promote public confidence in the proper and fair working of the system".

Mr Justice Baker refused to grant the police application for press exclusion.

"I conclude that there is no likelihood that the attendance of accredited representatives of the media at the ... hearing will materially increase the risk to the girls' lives. The police have not demonstrated that there is a general risk of leakage," said the judge.

"I conclude that the balance in this case comes down firmly on the side of allowing the media to attend."

He added: "I am not satisfied that excluding the press from the outset of the substantive hearing is either necessary in the interests of either child, or for the safety of any party, witness, or person connected with a party or witness, or that justice will be otherwise impeded or prejudiced by their attendance."

The judge said the circumstances in which journalists should be excluded from attending family court proceedings was an "important issue" - whether or not reporting was allowed.

"Although the rights of the media do not extend to a right to report ... it must not be thought that they are any less important," he said.

"Open justice has two components - the right to attend as well as the right to report - and the fact that the second is subject to legal restriction does not undermine the importance of the first. On the contrary, it could be argued that what has been called the 'watchdog' role of the press (acknowledged and endorsed by the courts on many occasions) is even more important where the right to report is restricted. As watchdog, the press scrutinises not merely the decisions reached by the courts but also the process by which they are reached."