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Showing posts with label contempt of court. Show all posts
Showing posts with label contempt of court. Show all posts

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Molecular chemistry, contempt of court and the reporting of the Joanna Yeates case




Let me introduce you to the optical isomer, also known as a mirror image molecule.
Fascinating things. The one on the left has a sedative, hypnotic and anti-inflammatory effect. The one on the right has a teratogenic effect.

With me so far?

The diagram is the thalidomide molecule. The sedative, hypnotic effect cured the symptoms of morning sickness. The teratogenic molecule - caused birth defects. Both molecules were in the drug given to pregnant women worldwide, causing terrible birth defects in children they were carrying.

The drug caused the death of 100,000 unborn children. The families of the children who survived, some 10,000 globally wanted to know how this had happened and here in the UK some of the families were talking to the Sunday Times Insight team - at the time one of the world's very best investigative journalism teams (sadly disbanded in 2005) The ST started running articles on thalidomide and its manufacturers, Distillers (later acquired by Guinness and now part of Diageo)

Because compensation cases were still being dealt with in courts the ST could not properly investigate the origins and testing of the drug (it had been invented by accident in Germany) The Sunday Times, under the legendary editor Harold Evans decided to challenge the law that was preventing their investigations - common law contempt - which would punish publication of material which was seriously prejudicial to proceedings that were 'pending or imminent.'

They took the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, where it was held that UK common law contempt was not in keeping with the UK's oblihations under the European Covention on Human Rights. A country in this position has a choice - either withdraw from the ECHR (and take a seat at the back next to North Korea) or amend the law.

And so, eventually, we got the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which is, in effect, a liberalisation of the law. Gone is the old woolly 'pending or imminent' - now to be in contempt you have to create a substantial risk of serious prejudice or serious impediment to active proceedings. For proceedings to be active an arrest needs to have been made or a warrant issued for someone's arrest. It also includes a defence of discussion of public affairs, to reflect the Sunday Times situation - which means that just because there is an ongoing court case, it does not follow that all discussion of the issues involved in that case is forbidden.

On the downside, it is a strict liability offence, which means that the the prosecution do not have to prove intent on the part of a publisher. So you can't claim that yo accidentally published something prejudicial if you are prosecuted for contempt - you've done the deed, you're guilty. This forces publishers to take care not to publish contempts - you train your reporters, newsdesk, subs (if you've still got them) to know the law and abide by it.

There is also an unlimited fine for contempt of court - which ought to concentrate editors' minds.

It has to be said that since 1981 contempt of court proceedings against newspapers and broadcasters are relatively rare. You have to make some effort to fall foul of it. The Sun managed it when they published the photo of a man accused of murder before he was due to take part in an ID parade, causing the collapse of the case (the ID witnesses could not longer be relied upon to use their memory of the offence when picking a suspect out of the line-up) The Sun was fined £80,000 and Kelvin MacKenzie, its then editor was fined £20,000 personally - this remains the record fine for contempt by publication in the UK.

The Sunday Mirror did it by running an interview with an assault victim's father in the Bowyer and Woodgate trial. The father talked about racist attacks he had suffered when the issue of race had been excluded from trial. This was published during jury deliberations and caused the abandonment of the first trial.

But the Contempt of Court Act was enacted long before the internet was invented. The most powerful media in potentia jurors and witnesses lives were newspapers, TV and radio. The legislators of 1981 cannot possibly have envisaged the effect the internet firstly, and social networks latterly, would have on pre-trial publicity.

Which brings me to the reporting of the Joanna Yeates case. The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has warned the media about some of the coverage. Some, it has to be said, has been excessive, and its cumulative effect, some might say, has been prejudicial.

Then we have Twitter and the court of public opinion expressed there, where some are not even in nodding acquaintance with the laws of libel, contempt or any other such constraints. The boyfriend of Ms Yeates criticised the press and internet coverage of the case yesterday.

The difficulty is that Twitter and Facebook simply carry the sort of conversations that might be going on in homes, office and pubs across the UK. But Twitter amplifies these conversations. The only way I can see a Tweet resulting in a contempt action is if it perhaps links to longer prejudicial material and is tweeted or retweeted by someone with significant numbers of followers. Whether the Attorney General wants to take this step of going after Twitterers is another matter. At the moment he seems more concerned with what the mainstream media, especially the redtops, are doing.

I would advise those openly speculating on this case both in mainstream and social media to keep their powder dry. As well as any person's fundamental right to a fair trial I have seen enough criminal trials to know that predicting their outcome on the basis of very preliminary 'evidence' is folly.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Texting jurors and the Contempt of Court Act

So, you're on your final hours of jury duty. You've heard the closing arguments, the judge has summed up and now along with your fellow jurors you're seated in the jury room beginning your deliberations.

Then the judge pops his head round the door and points to a box in the middle of the table.

"Erm, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in that box there's lots of information about this case which I've ruled inadmissible, or it's been kept out because of legal restrictions. Just don't look in it ok? Thanks a lot."

You look at one another, one of you whispers that surely a peek wouldn't hurt, another says you might get into trouble with the judge if you look. The judge's head appears round the door again and he says: "Oh, if you do look and keep schtum about it, there's nothing we can do, we can't even ask you if you looked after you've reached a verdict."

This about sums up the attitude of the courts to the internet and jurors. They are warned not to look, not to conduct their own Google-investigations. But unless a juror is reported for bringing in material by another juror, there's no way the courts can 'detect' such practices. Indeed the Contempt of Court Act 1981 forbids anyone, even a Royal Commission on Justice, from even asking jurors how they reached their verdicts - eg, did you reach it as a result of evidence, or did Wikipedia give you a helping hand?

This week we have seen the latest use by a juror of technology. A teenage juror texted another on the same trial to give a running commentary on evidence, as reported here in The Guardian's new Law section.

The recipient of the text reported the matter, both were discharged, and the texter was given a suspended sentence, showing how seriously the courts take these matters.

This is something I've been pointing out for some time now. While the print media in particular, broadcasters too though they generally do less court reporting, are all under dire warnings of the dangers of contempt, very little is known of what jurors do when they sit at home in the warm glow of their laptop.

An indication of just what is available was shown in the 2004 trial of David Bieber, who stood trial and was later convicted of the murder of PC Ian Broadhurst, and the attempted murder of two other officers.

I was teaching in Newcastle, where the trial took place, and seeing the police presence outside the court, Googled 'David Bieber.'

Now, before the results, I should mention that the reporters in court were told not to mention anything about Bieber's background, previous offences. His photgraph was banned too as 'identity was at issues' - ie he was claiming he didn't shoot the officers, a mysterious Mr X had done so - I know, this goes some way to explaining his conviction.

Top of the Google results was a site called America's Most Wanted which helpfully informed a viewer that Bieber, aka Nathan Wayne Coleman, was on the run for a suspected murder in Florida. It also carried his police mugshot.

If I were a trial judge I would be far more concerned about the Googling or texting juror than the court reporter sitting on the Press bench.

There's an interesting paper by Prof Michael Bromby of Glasgow Caledonian University.

The last government announced that it would conduct research into juries and how they reached their verdicts. It is to be hoped the present government continues this research. It might come to the conclusion that the Contempt of Court Act, enacted almost 30 years ago - long before the internet, Twitter, Facebook and blogs - is long overdue some revision.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Tasker's legacy lives on

Two police officers accused of misconduct in public office - they are alleged to have tried to avoid paying speeding fines - tried today to have their addresses withheld in court.

This has been tried many times in the past by defendants for all manner of reasons.

Most ask the court to place an order under S11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 - a banning order - preventing the publication of this detail.

One judge who resisted these orders and whose judgement is frequently cited by reporters in court fighting such orders, is the late, great, Sir Tasker Watkins.

When he sat in judgement on a request to place a S11 on a defendant's address in Rv Evesham Justices, ex p McDonagh [1988] QB 553, he said that S11 'was not enacted for the comfort and feelings of defendants.'

It is there to assist in the administration of justice, not as a shield behind which a defendant can hide. We have open courts and that means a defendant's name and address are given in open court.

Tasker is a hero of mine and literally a hero as well. When most of us were of an age to be barely starting our career, he was an officer commanding troops on the D-Day landings. He led bayonet charges through field raked by enemy gunfire, singlehandedly took on enemy machine gun posts and was awarded the Victoria Cross for actions which changed the course of a batte in which 10,000 enemy were killed and 50,000 captured.

Most would say he had done his bit then, but he came back to forge a career in the law which saw him become Deputy Lord Chief Justice and a stout defender of press freedom to openly report the courts.

Today's judgement shows that while Tasker may have passed away in 2007, the principles he maintained of open justice, still hold true.

And to cap it all, as if that's not reason enough to tip your hat to him, he was Welsh.

My thanks to Twitter followers @Ovidus and @davidelstone for pointing me in the direction of today''s case.