By Roger Pearson
The Lawyer magazine, which scooped the world’s media by publishing the result of the Da Vinci Code copyright battle on its website an hour before the judge gave his ruling, has agreed to print a front-page apology.
The decision came after judge Mr Justice Peter Smith warned the magazine it faced the prospect of contempt of court proceedings for breaking a strict embargo on reporting the outcome of court cases before the judge has "handed down" his judgment.
The judge also ordered The Lawyer to pay the costs of attendance of lawyers from Random House, and authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, who had alleged in the trial that the Dan Brown bestseller breached the copyright of their book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. He ordered the magazine to pay costs assessed on an indemnity basis — the highest level of costs.
The judge accepted The Lawyer’s explanation that its staff were unaware of the embargo rules on so-called draft judgments — released to lawyers and clients before they are handed down.
However he warned that, in future, any journalists who do the same could face "severe" consequences.
Justice Smith said: "I acknowledge that journalists have a legitimate interest in publishing matters and a legitimate interest in publishing a scoop if they have it. These two legitimate interests must not collide with clear legal principles.
"I have given this judgment in the hope that it will be made public and that journalists will appreciate in future that all draft judgments are embargoed and cannot be published until the official judgment has been handed down.
"Publication of a draft judgment will be regarded as a contempt of court.
"Assuming that this ruling is published, it will no longer be possible for journalists to say they did not understand the issue of a draft judgment. It is important that journalists take this on board and appreciate that, in the future, if there is a breach which is serious, the consequences that may be visited on such publications may well be quite severe."
The judge had earlier told the magazine’s lawyers that he would not take the matter further if it agreed to publish the explanation and apology on its front page.
He also ruled that, as the damage caused to the parties was "not of any significance", it was "not in the interests of justice" to seek to establish the identity of the magazine sources through a court order. News editor Stephen Hoare and journalist Benjamin Moshinsky had refused to name their sources.
Speaking afterwards, Libby Child, publisher of The Lawyer, said that all staff were now being given additional training on court procedure in order to prevent anything similar happening again.