Sun and Mail guilty of contempt - publication as opposed to origination is key

A contempt of court case against The Sun and the Daily Mail has been upheld after a High Court ruling that both the Sun and Daily Mail were in contempt of court for publishing pictures of a defendant in a murder trial seemingly 'posing with a gun.

What is important and carries implications in this case is the fact that the papers -or to be precise, their websites - had obtained the pictures online i.e. they were arguably already in the public domain and publicly available - so not sneaked, staged or in some way deviously obtained by the papers - and merely republished what was already 'out there' for others to see.

While the defendant in the case was ultimately found guilty for murdering his victim with a brick to the head and although the trial judge went to significant lengths to caution the jury against being influenced by external sources and trawling the internet for information on the case AND was satisfied that the publication of the picture by the news outlets did not in fact prejudice the trial the High Court was less forgiving and relied on the strict liability rule under the 1981 Contempt of Court Act to rule that the fact there had been publication of potentially prejudicial material in relation to active proceedings was sufficient to engage the contempt law and give rise to liability.

What this case demonstrates is that it does not matter whether there is already material of a potentially prejudicial manner available in the public domain, it is the fact of publication or republication by a web site or media outlet that can still trigger liability for contempt of court if that publication coincides with ongoing (= instigated or active) court proceedings and could potentially be prejudicial (it does not have to actually prejudice but merely have the potential to pruejduce proceedings where a case is active). This could extend to anyone publishing and is therefore not confined to media outlets as the Contempt of Court Act attaches to anyone publishing potentially prejudicial material and under criminal law this is measured not by circulation but by the fact the material has been published.

The Law
There are two types of Contempt of Court:

Statutory – Contempt of Court Act 1981
Applies to specific cases
Covers ACTIVE proceedings
Intent is irrelevant - its is the fact of publication that counts

Common Law Contempt
Has a wider scope and concerns preserving the integrity of the
administration of justice (but can also be applied to an individual case)
Covers cases which are not yet active but where proceedings can be
foreseen or are imminent

Proceeding become ACTIVE when someone has been:
Warrant issued for their arrest
Court summons issued for them to appear

Proceedings cease to be ACTIVE when:
Person released without being charged (except where on police bail)
No arrest is made in the 12 months following a warrant
Case is dropped
Defendant judged to be unfit to plead or be tried
Defendant convicted + sentenced or acquitted

More on this case from Daily Mail and Press Gazette

Related reading: Does the internet make contempt laws unworkable?

No comments: