The dangers faced by journalists who are unfamiliar with the law of contempt have been highlighted by a case in which a newspaper faced the risk of criminal prosecution after running a front-page article which quoted from a report used in family court proceedings.
The Coventry Times ran its story despite a warning by Cafcass, the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service, that using material from the report it had prepared for the court might be a contempt.
Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 says that it is not a contempt to publish information relating to proceedings before any court sitting in private except in certain circumstances – which include cases involving the Children Act, the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court with respect to minors and the maintenance or upbringing of children.
The rule covers all hearings under the Children Act – which would include those dealing with disputes between estranged parents about where a child lives and how often each of them has contact with the youngster.
The Coventry Times article, published in February, concerned a mother’s complaint that police and other authorities had failed properly to investigate claims by her three-year-old daughter that she had been sexually assaulted by her father.
It included direct quotes from a Cafcass report prepared for the court dealing with the case, which the reporter considered it was in the public interest to disclose.
It later emerged that when the reporter was researching the story, Cafcass issued a warning that publishing this information might be a contempt. But the paper’s editor, Darren Parkin, was unaware of the warning.
Mr Parkin said the story, which was dealt with when the paper’s deadline was very close, got through without anyone realising the danger.
“I would have taken advice if I had known about the Cafcass warning,” he said.
“But I did not realise the risk, and did not realise that simply publishing the material might itself be a contempt. I have learned a sharp lesson from this.”
The paper had been careful to anonymise the story. But a contempt can be committed whether or not the material is anonymised – as Mr Justice Munby, sitting in the Family Division of the High Court, confirmed in a decision in 2004.
Press Association media law specialist Mike Dodd said the case highlighted a number of points.
First, it appeared that consideration was given only to the risk of strict liability contempt under the Contempt of Court Act and not to contempt under the provisions of the Administration of Justice Act.
Second, Cafcass’s warning of the risk of contempt seemed to have gone unheeded.
Third, the reporter and the editor were both wrong in believing that anonymising the story ruled out the possibility of contempt.
“There are always dangers when handling stories about things which have been in the family courts, because of the tight restrictions on reporting such cases,” Dodd said.
“This case highlights the dangers and shows how important it is for all journalists handling such stories to be clear about the law as it applies to reporting such cases. The message is – if you are not sure about the rules, then find out before going into print.”
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said the matter had been the subject of careful consideration by the Attorney, and that on this occasion, the public interest would be served by giving the newspaper an opportunity to highlight the issue in the trade press for the benefit of other journalists.
The spokesman said: “It is important that reporters covering family proceedings are fully aware of the legal restrictions and seek legal advice in cases of doubt, or where they are unfamiliar with such proceedings.”
Society of Editors Director Bob Satchwell, who is also a director of the National Council for the Training of Journalists, said: “This case highlights the need for all editors and journalists to ensure that not only do they keep up with changes in the law, but also that they keep refreshing the law they have learned previously.
“Regular legal training and updates are vital to ensure that we all avoid unnecessary problems.”