What is contempt of court, and why is Tommy Robinson guilty of it?

By Clive Coleman
Legal correspondent, BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson has been sentenced to nine months in prison after being found guilty of "contempt of court". What does that mean?

What is contempt of court?

Contempt of court laws exist to ensure people get fair trials. The idea is that juries must not be influenced by anything but the evidence they hear in court.

The rules apply to everyone from journalists to people posting comments on social media, and even jurors.

If someone interferes with a trial, the defendants can walk free and a new trial might have to be held.

The maximum sentence for contempt of court is two years in prison, but it can also be punished with an unlimited fine.

The law is set out in the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.

Contempt includes publishing anything that creates a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing "active" criminal proceedings. Proceedings become "active" when a suspect is arrested.

Someone could also be in contempt by actions including taking photographs or film, recording what is said in court or talking to a jury member about a case.

Why was Tommy Robinson found guilty of contempt?

Tommy Robinson, also known as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, committed contempt of court by broadcasting footage of defendants accused of sexual exploitation. The hour-long broadcast, outside Leeds Crown Court in May 2018, was seen by thousands of people.

Lawyers for the Attorney General said reporting restrictions had been put in place. These postponed the publication of any details of the case until the end of a series of linked trials, involving 29 defendants. This was to stop the juries in those cases being influenced.

Image source, Getty Images

They also said the manner in which Robinson filmed the defendants at court was a problem. The aggressive confrontation could have influenced those on bail not to co-operate with the trial.

Judge Dame Victoria Sharp said when explaining the decision, that Mr Robinson encouraged "vigilante action" in his Facebook Live. She also said that the video could have "seriously impeded" justice over a sexual grooming gang's trial.

Robinson was originally jailed for 13 months for the offence in May 2018.

But the Court of Appeal said his case hadn't been handled fairly.

Then, the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox - the government's top legal adviser - announced that new proceedings could be brought against him.

What other famous cases have there been?

In 2011, the Sun and the Daily Mail were found guilty of contempt for pictures they published during a murder trial. They had shown the defendant holding a gun, which risked prejudicing the jury.

The following year, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror were found guilty of contempt, following serial killer Levi Bellfield's conviction for the murder of schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Their articles were part of an "avalanche" of bad character information about Bellfield, the hearing was told.

The Daily Mirror article detailed his violent treatment and sexual abuse of former partners, including Jo Collings.

Media caption,
Gemma Dowler has written about her sister's life and the trauma her family suffered

However, the jury still had to consider its verdict on an attempted abduction charge relating to another victim.

The coverage was considered prejudicial and the jury had to be discharged, denying the victim and her family the chance of justice.

Bellfield was already in jail for the murders of Amelie Delagrange and Marsha McDonnell and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy.

Does it apply on social media?

Yes, discussions about court cases still need to stay inside the jury room.

In 2011, in the first case of its kind, juror Joanne Fraill was punished for contacting defendant Jamie Sewart via Facebook - causing a £6m drugs trial to collapse.

Media caption,
A juror who used Facebook to contact a defendant during a trial to discuss the case, faces up to two years in jail

Fraill was jailed for eight months for contempt for both contacting Sewart and searching online about the case. Sewart had already been cleared but other defendants were still on trial, so proceedings were compromised.

Social media users have been warned about commenting on court proceedings, and breaching restrictions put in place. Actress Tina Malone, for example, was given a suspended prison sentence for breaching an injunction protecting the identity of Jon Venables - one of James Bulger's killers.

She shared a Facebook message which was said to include an image and Venables' new name.

What else counts as contempt of court?

Intimidation: Juries must be able to give verdicts without being subject to abuse or intimidation.

Carrying out research: In 2012, juror and university lecturer Theodora Dallas was jailed for six months for carrying out her own research about defendant Barry Medlock, who was on trial for causing grievous bodily harm.

Taking or posting photos: In 2016, Damian Parker-Stokes was jailed for 15 months for taking photographs in court as his friend Ryan Sheppard was being jailed for murder.

Parker-Stokes posted one image on Sheppard's Facebook page with the words: "Respect g at least u had the balls to admit it ..."

The then Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, said people who used Facebook to "mock the administration of justice" and "cause considerable concern" to a victim's family, "must be deterred by the most severe sentences".

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