3 min read

Media Law lecture -- Contempt of Court

Q's for next week:

  • What is jigsaw identification?
  • What are the rules on sketching court proceedings?
  • What is the CPS Media Protocol?
  • What does the law say about reporters speaking to jurors?
  • How many jurors in a criminal trial, what number is needed for a majority verdict?
  • 12; 11/12.

Media issue of the week: Lord Chief Justice laying out thoughts on the role of the media (full @ judiciary.gov.uk)

  • Principle of freedom of press not explicitly stated, but enshrined in various documents.
  • Free press is important; independent press can be reckless, but important for revealing public scandal.
  • "Crime is crime"; if a reporter commits a crime, it should be investigated.
  • Press Complaints Commission 20 years old; failure to exercise its powers indicative of an understanding of its position.
  • Comparable to a judge not passing the lengthiest sentence possible in a case.

Reading to date: terminology of first module, all the appendices, missed other stuff, need to ask somebody.

Contempt of Court Act 1981

  • Purpose:
  • Avoid trial by media
  • Defendant's right to be tried on the evidence
  • Restricts reporting whilst sub judice
  • While proceedings are on, there are restrictions on what can be reported.
  • Protects jurors, defendant.
  • Open Justice
  • Justice should be seen to be done, as well as done.
  • Subject to scrutiny.
  • Doors of court are open to public.
  • Allows transparency.
  • Also part of the European Convention on Human Rights -- right to an public trial, though with qualifications.
  • Can information be controlled?
  • Article 6 and 10 European Convention on Human Rights

The central contempt test

  • Proceedings active from arrest/issue of warrant for an arrest.
  • The test:
  • A publication which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.
  • Strict liability -- intent has little to do with it.
  • Enforced by the attorney general.
  • Has to consent to a prosecution against a periodical.
  • Applies to a risk of prejudice, not actual prejudice.
  • Attorney General v. Express News
  • Daily Star published photos and names of footballers arrested in rape case despite Attorney General's request
  • No trial ever carried out, but Daily Star fined £60,000 for risk of prejudice.
  • Attorney General v. MGN Ltd. and News Group Newspapers LTD (2011)
  • Joana Yates case -- number of publications in Sun and Mirror that focused on Christopher Jeffries, Yates landlord.
  • Said landlord was peeping tom, has pedophile friend in jail, was obsessed by death, suggested had followed a woman contrary to wishes (immense vilification)
  • Both found in contempt of court; £18k and £50k fines. Could have prevented people from speaking up, jurors coming to court with an open mind.


+ Fines
+ Legal costs
+ Imprisonment
+ Wasted costs order: S93 Courts Act 2003
    + Third Party costs orders
    + "serious misconduct"
    + No need for contempt to be charged; attorney general does not have to give consent, judges can do it themselves.

Prior to arrest

  • Common law contempt
  • Information serious prejudiced proceedings
  • Intention
  • Imminent
  • Rarely prosecuted
  • AG v. News Group Newspapers (1989)
  • Printed reports of doctor having raped 18 year old; Sun printed interviews with relatives stating they'd start a private prosecution.
  • Proceedings were imminent; real risk and intention of behalf of publication to muck up proceedings.
  • Libel -- even if contempt proceedings not brought.
  • Sexual offense victims have lifelong right to anonymity. Can be waived, but must be in writing.

When are proceedings active?

  • Active from:
  • Arrest
  • Issue of warrant for arrest
  • Ends:
  • By acquittal or sentence
  • Discontinuance of proceedings
  • Staggered verdicts (i.e., multiple charges, defendants)
  • Proceedings are still active and continue until all verdicts reached

Contempt: factors that may be relevant

  • The decision maker: jury or judge
  • After jury has made decision, the judge becomes the decision maker. Latter is less likely to be influenced by TV/media.
  • Laws under statute are primarily geared towards defending jury.
  • "red alert" any time there's a jury.
  • The impact on potential juror?
  • Each report looked at separately
  • What stage of proceedings?
  • The "Fade Factor"
  • Chance of contempt is much more likely when jury is in-situ as opposed to initial arrest.
  • Further away from trial, less likelihood for contempt.

Examples of material may be in contempt

  • Photographs of defendant when ID is an issue
  • Previous convictions
  • Bad character
  • Attorney General v. Associated Newspapers LTD and News Group Newspapers Ltd. (2011)
  • Vilification of the defendant
  • Details account of the evidence against the defendant
  • Details of confessions