Sex and football may breed contempt

Amid speculation surrounding the identities of the Premiership footballers allegedly involved in the rape of a 17-year-old girl at the Grosvenor Hotel, Park Lane last month, the Attorney General issued guidelines as “a reminder to the press of their legal obligations” under the rules of contempt in reporting the story.

He warned them “not to engage in conduct, nor to publish material, including comment, that may create a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the course of justice”. This may occur, for instance, when prejudicial information is published about a defendant or when contact is made by the press with a potential witness.

In the footballers’ case, with its highly newsworthy combination of sex, violence, football and celebrity, public interest is intense. The Attorney General is no doubt concerned to avoid press reports of the story giving grounds to a claim by the defence at any subsequent trial that prejudicial reporting has rendered a fair trial impossible.

The case of Geoff Knights, the partner of Gillian Taylforth accused of physical abuse, which was abandoned following complaints of “outrageous, unfair and oppressive” pretrial reporting, is a scenario which the Attorney General will not be keen to have repeated. More recently, an article in the Sunday Mirror led to a costly abandonment and retrial of the case against Leeds footballers Lee Bowyer and Gareth Woodgate.

Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, a contempt is committed if a publication creates, during the “active” period (when the accused has been arrested or charged), a substantial risk of serious prejudice to legal proceedings.

The net of common law contempt extends to prejudicial publications when proceedings are pending or imminent, but requires an intention to interfere with the administration of justice. The risk and degree of prejudice will generally increase with the proximity of the trial, but each case will turn on its own facts.

The current courts bill (receiving its third reading in Parliament) poses a new concern for the media. If passed in its current form, newspapers found guilty of “serious misconduct” leading to a delayed or abandoned trial may in future be ordered to pay any wasted costs. We have not yet reached this situation, but newspapers should take the Attorney General’s guidelines on this case as a yellow card.

Catherine Nelson is a trainee solicitor with Addleshaw Goddard

by Catherine Nelson

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