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.
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:
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.
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.