Media Law Lecture Notes 2: Contempt of Court and Court Reporting

October 14, 2011

Contempt of Court:

Contempt of court is the body of law which protects the legal process within a court from outside influence.

 Contempt of court is a complex area of law, and does not just effect journalists. for example, it is contempt to interrupt a trail or to physically stop witnesses or parties attending proceedings. 

The main principle aims and objectives of the Contempt of Court act 1981 are: 

  • To preserve the integrity of the legal process 
  • to give the accused a fair trial 
  • to avoid extraneous information which might sway a juror's (or magistrates) mind.    

It is as much as a significant restraint on the media as the law of libel. 

You can be guilty of contempt if you publish material that creates a risk of prejudice to an active court case or in breech of a court order -regardless of your intent.   
The 'strict liability rule' amounts to a contempt if a person creates a significant risk of prejudice to active or forthcoming legal proceedings.

Reports of the trial itself are generally safe so long as they are fair and accurate and no reporting restrictions have been put in place. 

Care must be taken however to not report a matter arising out of one trial that may prejudice against other criminal proceedings. 

Note: Journalists involved in actions for defamation or libel (malicious falsehood) will appear in the Queens Bench Division of the High Court. The most serious civil claims are heard here. 

The basic principle of justice that contempt of court protects is that everyone is entitled to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, and that conviction is the job of courts, not the media. Everyone has the right to a fair trial.  

Magazine Law, A Practical Guide, by Peter Mason and Derrick Smith (Winchester University reference number 343.0098 MAS) outlines a simple test for journalists to take: 
"The simple test is: Could this statement prejudge the result of court proceedings? If it could the it should not be published".   

Note: Not only is liability restricted to creating substantial risk of serious prejudice; for example, it is contempt to interview jurors, to record in court. 

Time of Liability: 

Once a case is 'active', anything which creates a risk of prejudiced or impeded will be classed as a contempt of court, regardless of intent. A serious prejudice might include, for example, the publication of previous convictions.  

Legally Active Case: 

In most criminal cases, the "active" period starts when: 

  • Police make an arrest
  • Issue a arrest warrant
  • Magistrates issue of summons
  • The person is charged (by documentation)   
  • Oral charge (except in Scotland)

The strict liability rule only applies to a publication that has published contempt of court material whilst the court case is active; anything before or after is not convicting material.     

Note: Media Law Cases and Materials by Eric Barendt and Lesley Hitchens (Winchester library reference: 343.009 BAR) states: 
"A person is not guilty of contempt of court under the strict liability rule if at the time of publication (having taken all responsible care) did not know, or have any reason to suspect, the case is active. "

Contempt Risks End: 

The risk for Contempt of Court in criminal proceedings ceases to apply if: 
  • The arrested person is released without charge 
  • No arrest is made within 12 months of the issue of warrant 
  • The case is discontinued 
  • The defendant is fount unfit to be tried, to please or the court orders the charge to lie on file. 
Liability for contempt resumes at Appeals, and ends after the appeal has been heard (unless a new trail is ordered or the case is readmitted to a lower court). 

Strict Liability:

Where there is a 'substantial' risk of prejudice to forthcoming legal proceedings. -there must be a practical risk, not just a theoretical one.  

Once proceedings are active and a contempt has been committed, the strict liability rule makes it irrelevant whether or not you actually intended to commit contempt.

If you commit contempt once the case is active the rule of strict liability makes it irrelevant whether you intentionally meant to or not. 

The strict liability rule applies only to a publication which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in proceedings will be seriously prejudiced.    

Since the law only applies to a publication, a publication includes: Speech, writing, broadcast or other communication what is addresses to the public (either as a whole, or to a specific section).   


Media Law Cases and Materials by Eric Barendt and Lesley Hitchens (Winchester library reference: 343.009 BAR) states: 

"A person is not guilty of contempt of court under the strict liability rule if at the time of publication (having taken all responsible care) did not know, or have any reason to suspect, the case is active. " -This is the defence of innocent publication.

"A publication made as part of a discussion in good faith of public affairs or public interest is not treated as contempt of court under the strict liability rule  if the risk is impediment or incidental to the discussion." -The defence of Discussion of Public Affairs.

A journalists is not guilty of Contempt of Court if their report is fair, accurate and in good faith. 

What you can report from court: 

The strict liability rule concerns publicity which may prejudice future proceedings and current proceedings.

Journalists have the right to attend legal proceedings, however the extend to which they can report is limited by court restrictions.  

Journalists should remember that until the trial is over all claims made against the accused are allegations and must be reported as such.

You can report: 

1. Name of the court and names of the magistrates
2. Names, addresses and occupations of parties and witnesses and ages of the accused and witnesses
3. Names of counsel and solicitors in the proceedings
4. Offences with which the accused is charged, or summary of them
5. Any decision to commit the accused or any of the accused for trial; any decision on the disposal of the case of any accused not commuted
6. The charge or charges, or a summary of them, on which the accused is committed for trial; the court to which he or she is committed
7. Bail arrangements, including conditions of bail, but not any reasons for opposing or refusing it
8. Whether legal aid was granted
9. If proceedings are adjourned, the date and place to which they are adjourned
10. Any decision of the court to lift or not lift  reporting restrictions. 

You are able to report the above as long as it can not lead to the identification of the victim.   

Reporting on Preliminary Hearings: 
Reefer to the list above.
  The courts may impose other reporting restrictions however. 

Note: Cases involving serious offenses such as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and driving offenses go to the Crown Court following a preliminary investigation to confirm that there is a case to answer. Reporting restrictions (unless waived by the accused) are then put into place; and reports should not be published on any evidence the magistrates court heard, only their decision.

Exceptions to Contempt of Court:

There are exceptions to Contempt of Court; for example journalists who are asked by the police for help in finding a person wanted for questioning will not normally be in contempt of court, even though a warrant has been issued for that persons arrest. 

Exceptional public interest may also waiver Contempt of Court; an example of this would be the trail of Geoffrey Knights (boyfriend of Eastenders star Gillian Taylforth), where he was accused of wounding a taxi driver. The judged stopped the trail due to 'unlawful, misleading and scandalous' pre-trail media publicity. The High Court however decided that Contempt allegations should be dismissed due to the coverage of the relationship and the fact the public was already aware of Knights previous convictions.  

Court Reporting: 

English law adheres to the principle of open justice, which allows the public to sit in courts and witness proceedings. 

However, even though the public and media have the right to hear proceedings, the court may impose reporting restrictions. 


Identification of  Victims: 

All victims of rape and other sex crimes, including children and both genders, are automatically guaranteed anonymity for life from the moment they make a complaint that they are the victim of a sex crime,  regardless of whether any proceedings are brought against the alleged offender. 

You can never broadcast/publish anything that could lead to identification of a complainant. 

A victim over the age of 16 can consent to being identified. The consent should usually be given in writing. No-one can consent on behalf of a victim under 16, not even parents.  

Victims however, can be identified if they agree to it.  The consent should be in writing and must not be the result of any pressure.

Identification of Suspects:

Suspects in cases alleging a sexual offense are treated the same as in any other case (the suspects can be identified, except where naming or identifying the suspect would also identify the victim).

Identification Children and Young people: 

Access of the media to legal proceedings involving children have been restricted in order to safeguard to welfare of under 18's.  

The Children Act of 1989 made it possible for magistrates courts to sit in private proceedings, and the reports of these cases to be restricted to protect the identification of any child involved in the proceedings.

Journalists are allowed in a youth court, however the public are not. 

Reports of proceedings at a youth court must not publish the:

• Name
• Address
• School
• Photograph
• Or any details that are likely to lead to the identification of any under 18 involved in the proceedings as a defendant or witness (which includes the victim). 

The Press Complaints Commission states:

"The press must not, even if legally free to do so, identify children under 16 who are victims or witnesses in cases involving sex offenses."

  • In any press report of a case involving a sexual offense against a child -
  • The child must not be identified.
  • The adult may be identified.
  • The word "incest" must not be used where a child victim might be identified.
  • Care must be taken that nothing in the report implies the relationship between the accused and the child (see below).

Note: The Children and Young persons act 1993 imposed restrictions on the reporting of any proceedings involving children and young persons under 18.

Jigsaw Identification:

When different published/broadcast sources give individual details about a person's identity, which bought together can identify a person who should not be identified.  

Anonymity Orders

Anonymity orders may be put into place to allow witnesses to give evidence anonymously, for example, to protect national security. 

It is a less extreme measure than holding a private proceeding.

The court may displace the anonymity rule in certain circumstances, if for example it is necessary to induce potential witnesses to come forward, or because the judge is satisfied that it is in the public interest to remove the restriction.

Reporting Restrictions: 

There are a number of situations in which reporting restrictions either apply automatically, or can be specifically ordered by a court. 

These can be imposed by a judge at any stage of a case and usually apply until proceedings are over.  

Judges may, on occasion, lift the restrictions at the request of the defense.  They can do this to get witnesses to come forward and to ensure a fair trial, or to allow the reasonable reporting of a case of public interest. 

Some of the more common reporting restrictions which may be ordered include:
  • Postponement Orders, preventing publication of reports of proceedings until after the conclusion of related proceedings or until the court lifts or varies the restrictions
  • Anonymity Orders, where the court has allowed a person's details to be withheld, for example in blackmail cases.

Court General Information: 

Detention without Charge:
  • Police have 24 hours to question a suspect
  • Senior officer can extend the questioning time by 12 hours
  • Magistrates can extend questioning time by 36 hours
  • Questioning time can never exceed 96 hours
  • Terror suspects questioning limit is 28 days.
Indictable: An Indictable offense hold the sentence of 5 years plus.

Either way: An either way or hybrid offense allows the defendant to elect between trial by jury on indictment in the Crown Court and summary trial in the Magistrates' Court.

Summary: Stays with Magistrate.

Magistrate Powers:
  • 6 months in jail.
  • Fines up to £5000.
  • Conditional discharge
  • Community orders/Binding orders
  • ASBO's
Key stages of a Trial (Crown Court):
  • Prosecution opening 
  • Key prosecution witnesses 
  • Defence opening 
  • Key defence witnesses 
  • Judges defense witness 
  • Judges summery 
  • Jury sent out
  • Deliberation
  • Verdict. 
It can all go horribly wrong -Example from the BBC Collage of Journalism

One 24-hour news broadcaster once managed to go live with the wrong verdicts in a major terrorist trial. Because of that erroneous report, Scotland Yard actually put out a press release based on the incorrect information.

It was a classic example that brought together some of the most basic pitfalls in court coverage for broadcast:
  • The producer had not covered the case before and therefore
  • he was unaware of the alternative charges.
  • The plan for getting the result out to the live point was re-arranged at the last minute
  • but that plan was rendered useless when the judge imposed a ban on people leaving court immediately after the verdict.
Examples of Contempt in the Media: 
Trial by Newspaper  

Chris Jefferies 
Chris Jefferies was attacked by several newspapers after his arrest.
 Less than two weeks after the killing of Joanna Yeates on 17 December last year, her landlord Chris Jefferies was arrested. After a couple of days in custody, he was released on police bail on New Year's Day, though he remained an official suspect until Vincent Tabak was charged with her murder some weeks later.

During his brief incarceration several newspapers went to town, virtually fitting up the former public school teacher as the kind of person one might expect to commit a murder. His blue-rinse hair and reported love of "avant-garde" films were produced as evidence of his supposed oddness. One memorable headline in The Sun read: "Weird, Posh, Lewd, Creepy." 

Mr Jefferies was virtually convicted by journalists who had not understood that by the standards of most public-school teachers of English there was nothing remotely odd about him. 

If Mr Jefferies had been charged, a jury might well have been swayed by the almost hysterical portrayal of his character. 

Sunday Times Thalidomide Case 

Contempt was established after this case in common law. 

The Attorney general took proceedings against The Sunday Times as the paper had proposed to publish an article suggesting that Distillers had not taken proper care before putting its drug onto the market. An earlier article had criticised the company for bot offering the parents of the children concerned more generous compensation.

If in doubt, leave it out. 

Note: It could be useful to listen to The Media Show.

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