Contempt and reporting restrictions
Contempt of court law protects the integrity of the legal process from outside influence. There are various types of possible reporting restrictions, some of which apply automatically while others are at the discretion of the court.
This is a general and brief account of the law of contempt and some of the main reporting restrictions that apply. It should not be relied upon to make any assessment as to whether content is potentially in contempt or whether a case is subject to reporting restrictions. BBC journalists should always take specific advice from the BBC legal department. Remember, too, that there are significant differences between the legal systems of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
One of its key aims of reporting restrictions is to prevent the publication of material which might prejudice a fair trial by influencing jurors to think that a defendant might be guilty. You can also commit a contempt of court by, for example, interviewing a witness before a trial or even by putting pressure on them to provide an interview after the trial.
Once proceedings are ‘active’, anything which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in these proceedings will be seriously prejudiced or impeded will be a contempt of court.
In most criminal cases, proceedings become ‘active’:
- On the arrest of a suspect
- When an arrest warrant is issued
- On the issue of a summons (in Scotland a complaint) or indictment. This may be well before a person in charged
- When a person in charged.
The contempt laws in Scotland are very different.
It is irrelevant whether or not you actually intended to commit contempt.
These rules apply to all courts and tribunals exercising the judicial authority of the state. The risk is highest when the case is due to be heard by a lay jury - for example, in criminal trials.
Reporting restrictions - what can I report?
Certain laws also limit what can be said about specific types of hearing and cases.
In most cases, the court has the discretion to lift the reporting restrictions.
In this section, we cover some of the more common types of reporting restrictions you might come across. But there are various types of possible reporting restrictions, some of which apply automatically and some of which are at the discretion of the court, so you should always check the position with the particular case you are reporting:
Magistrates’ court and crown court
A number of rules automatically restrict what can be said in certain early hearings in both the magistrates’ and the crown court. These rules do not apply to reporting trials in the crown court and the magistrates’ court. The courts also have discretion to lift these restrictions depending on the circumstances of the case, including on the application of the media.
In the magistrates’ court, rules apply and limit what can be reported about preliminary hearings in indictable only and either way cases, and also to pre-trial hearings in cases regarding summary offences. Issues such as bail and transfer to the crown court are dealt with at these types of hearings.
In the crown court, similar rules apply to applications for a case to be dismissed, pre-trial hearings and preparatory hearings, all of which are heard by the judge without a jury. The aim of these hearings is for the judge to rule on issues such as what evidence a jury will be told about and to rule on legal issues.
The restrictions are designed to limit publication of any information that might prejudice a subsequent jury trial, so prevent the reference, for example, to any of the evidence in the case and previous convictions.
Note that these types of restrictions even apply to preliminary hearings in summary cases in the magistrates’ court. This is because, even though a decision will usually have been made at an early stage that the case is not serious enough for the crown court, as the case develops the magistrates may decide to refer the matter to the crown court - for example, if new evidence comes to light.
The rules work by setting out what can be said about these types of hearing but, in summary, limit reporting to:
- The name of the court
- The judges dealing with the case
- A summary of the charges
- The names, addresses, ages and occupations of the defendants and witnesses
- The lawyers involved and arrangements as to bail.
Whilst these rules restrict what can be said, they do not prevent you from attending these hearings if you are following a case.
In Scotland, the accused appears before a sheriff at a hearing in chambers. The same basic restrictions apply to these hearings as to magistrates’ preliminary hearings.
The BBC’s editorial guidelines advise that Programme Legal Advice should be consulted whenever there are queries about the law as it affects children.
There are some important provisions of the law you need to be aware of.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, people accused of committing offences while under 18 are usually dealt with in youth courts. There is an automatic ban on identifying minors who appear in youth courts.
If you’re reporting proceedings at a youth court, you must not publish:
- Their name
- Their address
- Their school
- A photograph or other pictures
- Or any particulars likely to lead to the identification of ANYONE under 18 who is involved in the proceedings.
In other courts, there is no automatic restriction, but the court can make an order preventing the identification of a child involved in the proceedings.
In Scotland, a young person accused of criminal behaviour is treated as an adult from the age of 16, except in a Children’s Hearing.
The law provides automatic anonymity to the victim in respect of the vast majority of sexual offences from the moment a complaint is made by them or someone else that they are a victim of a sex crime. This applies for life.
It applies whether or not:
- The allegation is subsequently withdrawn
- The police have been told about it
- There is a prosecution
- There is a conviction.
In Scotland, the law is different, but the practice of respecting anonymity is the same. In Scotland, since 1 September 2015 members of the press are prohibited from identifying children aged under 18 who were involved in crimninal court proceedings, whether as a victim, witness or accused. The age restriction was previously 16. A court is still be able to lift any reporting restrictions if it considers this to be in the public interest.
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