Following AG's new advice: How journalists can avoid Contempt of Court when reporting crime

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The Attorney General announced stricter approach to the Contempt of Court Act yesterday. Here are some tips to keep you safe, writes media law trainer Cleland Thom.

A. When someone’s arrested

  1. Police are sometimes unwilling to confirm if someone has been arrested, for operational reasons. If they say ‘a man is helping with inquiries’, assume that proceedings are active, and make the necessary deletions to his story.
  2. It’s best not to name them. They can sue you for defamation if they’re not charged. See example
  3. Don’t say, or imply, that the person arrested / being questioned is the person who committed the offence – even if you know they were. Avoid statements like: ‘Smith was caught carrying a loaded shotgun’ or ‘The [named] men were caught red handed and arrested on the spot.
  4. Don’t use a photo, e-fit or detailed description of the person arrested / being questioned – they may face an ID parade, or base their defence on mistaken ID. It’s still unsafe, even if the person is well known.
  5. Don’t use background information about the person arrested / being questioned, that implies or asserts guilt, a bad reputation, previous acquittals, previous convictions or brushes with the law / authorities.
  6. Don’t use detailed witness statements – the witness may feel obliged to use that version of events in court, even if they later realise it was wrong.
  7. Arrest warrants are not often used these days. So proceedings usually activate with arrests.

B. When someone’s charged

  1. It’s safe to name them.
  2. Points A – 3, 4, 5 and 6 above still apply.
  3. Do not make payments to witnesses – there would be a danger of contempt if payment were to depend on whether the defendant was found guilty or not guilty. There is an issue with the PCC Code here too, under clause 15 – see www.pcc.org
  4. Avoid interviewing the witness before a trial, even if the material is to be used after it. This could be seen as interfering with the course of justice.

C. What’s safe?

Some details will not be disputed at a trial and can be used:

  1. Name, address, details, background of the defendant.
  2. Undisputed details of the crime (but not who is suspected of committing it, what they did or what they looked like).
  3. The charge(s).
  4. Witness statements that contain opinions and reactions rather than evidence.
  5. Quotes from friends/ family/ neighbours etc of the accused – provided they don’t imply guilt or innocence…

Cleland Thom is a media law trainer and consultant. You can read the rest of this article on his website here.

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