How to stay safe when reporting previous convictions

Journalists sometimes phone me and say: "I’m covering a crown court trial, and they’ve just mentioned the bloke’s previous convictions! How can that be right?"

In fact, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows the judge to mention someone’s previous convictions, an any ‘reprehensible behaviour’ to the jury.

The prosecution must apply for this step to be taken, and can only do so if the previous convictions / behaviour are connected with the same offence.

So if a man is accused assaulting his wife, his previous convictions for domestic violence may well be revealed to the jury. But if he had previous convictions for another type of assault, such as grievous bodily harm, these would probably not be revealed.

The exception is if someone is charged with a sex crime against a child. Then they may have their previous convictions for downloading child pornography revealed.

The jury are excluded while the prosecution’s application is heard. The press can remain, but if the application is rejected, the they cannot report that it was made – for obvious reasons.

The law is used to prevent this type of thing:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/8973998/Stephen-Lawrence-murder-jurors-did-not-know-about-Gary-Dobson-and-David-Norriss-violent-past.html

Here’s a recent example of it in action:

http://www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/Man-John-Suddards-murder-case-previous/story-17044860-detail/story.html

One potential danger is when the media knows from its archives that a person who has just been charged has previous convictions for the same offence.

It’s tempting to assume the judge will therefore allow the jury to hear about them, and publish them before the trial.

The best advice is: Don’t risk it, especially with Dominic Grieve, the current Attorney General in charge of media contempt prosecutions. He’s rather free with his summonses.

You would probably be safe mentioning previous convictions if a man was on the run, and a warrant hadn’t been issued. Then the Contempt of Court Act wouldn’t apply. But you could still be prosecuted under common law contempt if Mr Grieve considered you’d been reckless.

I wouldn’t bet against it!

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law

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