Newsdesk Law revision: contempt of court


The rules for contempt of court are laid out in the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and are designed to ensure that an accused person gets a fair trial.

1. Contempt: basic rules

2. A question to draw out the main points

You work for a small village paper about 50 miles away from the nearest crown court.
The village garage has been robbed and you have dramatic pictures of the badly-beaten attendant who also gives a vivid description of her ordeal at the hands of the robber whom she says beat her up despite her offering to hand over the money without fuss. “I’ll be scarred for life,” weeps the 19-year-old who was working part-time to help send a sick child for specialist treatment.

You are about to lead Page One with the story and pictures and the headline ‘Brute beats charity angel’ when you are told that a notorious local man with a long record for violence has been arrested.

You go ahead and use the story on Page One and say at the end of the story that a man was helping police with their inquiries.

You also know that the man is out on licence from prison and you write a leader which, without naming the man, says that “10 years should mean 10 years” and declares that thugs should not be released so that they can beat up innocent people.

Discuss the situation as regards to Contempt of Court.


The news story

A man has been arrested so the ‘Initial Step’ - either arrest, warrant, charge or summons - has been taken to activate the dangers of contempt under the 81 Act.

The test as to whether what you published is likely to be prejudicial is as follows:

Does the story create a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to the particular case?

Substantial Risk: This is measured simply by whether or not a potential juror on the case would have access to your story. In this case - 50 miles away from the nearest crown court - you must presume that one of your regular readers might be called for jury service or that a copy of the paper found itself in the hands of someone nearer to the Crown Court. In this case there is clearly a substantial risk of this happening.

Serious prejudice: This is measured in two stages:
1. The initial impact your story would have on a regular reader of your paper. Was it a Page One lead with screaming, emotive headlines or was it tucked away inside at the bottom of a page? The more prominent, the more strident, the more out of kilter with your usual coverage, the more chance of it having an initial impact on a juror that might linger in his mind.

2. The residual impact: The law is concerned at the impact your story has on a juror at the point when he is told to go and consider his verdict. This is called the residual impact, that which is left after the impact of the original story is softened by:

a. The length of time between the story and the actual time of the trial . (Journalists should know the average time it takes for a case to come to trial in their patch). The longer the gap the less chance of serious prejudice.
b. The ‘focussing affect’ of the juror having to listen to the actual evidence presented in a cold objective manner and tested in cross examination by both prosecution and defence.
c. The judge’s summing-up in which he directs the jury on what to consider and what to disregard.

In this particular case the thing most likely to create serious prejudice would be revealing the man’s long record for violence.The girl’s story, while very emotive, is essentially made up of claims that are likely to be repeated in the court and compared with the defendant’s side of the story. Previous cases suggest that there is little danger of being prosecuted for contempt in carrying such a story. The big danger is in revealing a defendant’s violent past.


The leader

As far as the leader “10 years should mean 10 years” is concerned we are now in the territory covered by S5 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This gives protection to stories in good faith which are a discussion of public affairs as long as the risk of prejudice to a particular case is merely incidental to the wider discussion.

Without this protection the fact that there was a case going on somewhere in the UK - let’s say about hospital hygiene in which a hospital was being sued for negligence - would mean that all media discussion of the subject of hospital hygeine would be stifled until the case was over. Which would be nonsense. But the nearer the discussion got to the hospital involved in the negligence case the greater the danger of an article creating prejudice.

Back to the robbery: If the leader had been written before the attack took place and was merely adding to a national debate with no local angle to it there is plainly no prejudice. Once the “brute” is arrested, however, regular readers of the paper – and they might include potential jurors – would certainly put two and two together and the article would not be ‘merely incidental’ to a national debate on crime and punishment. It would be a very pointed reference to the robbery and therefore potentially prejudicial.

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