Times guilty of contempt of court over jury revelations

The publisher of the Times and the foreman of a jury who revealed how jurors reached a verdict he disagreed with were both found guilty of contempt of court today.

Two judges in the High Court held that Michael Seckerson and Times Newspapers broke the strict law which forbids disclosure of “the secrets of the jury room”.

The question of what penalties should be imposed was adjourned until Friday next week.

The case was brought by Attorney General Baroness Scotland under Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act, which bans disclosure of “votes cast, statements made, opinions expressed or arguments advanced” by members of a jury in their deliberations.

The judges were asked to make “orders of committal” – meaning a jail sentence or a fine – against Seckerson and the publishers.

Seckerson was one of two jurors who dissented from the 10-2 majority verdict in the case of Keran Henderson, a child minder convicted of the manslaughter of a child in her care, 11-month-old Maeve Sheppard.

Henderson, who was jailed for three years, is to appeal against her conviction later this month.

Lord Justice Pill and Mr Justice Sweeney heard that, on 19 December 2007, five weeks after the Reading Crown Court trial, The Times published articles by its legal editor, Frances Gibb.

The articles reported that two jurors were questioning the verdict and the role played in the trial by complicated evidence from expert medical witnesses.

It was stated that “the consensus was taken three minutes after the foreman was voted in. It was 10-2 against, all based on the evidence. After that, there was no going back”.

It was also said that the medical evidence was “overwhelming”, that the majority voted guilty “because it could do no other”, and that “ultimately the case was decided by laymen and laywomen using that despicable enemy of correct and logical thinking, that wonderfully persuasive device, common sense”.

The defendants argued that contempt proceedings could not be justified in the light of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression, subject to exceptions such as the need to maintain the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

They said it was essential that the press had a wide right to tell the public what happened in court proceedings.

But Lord Justice Pill said today that the “robust and highly valued” jury system depended on the open and frank expression of views between 12 people in the secrecy of the jury room, without fear that a juror’s possibly unpopular opinions might become known to his or her friends and neighbours or the public at large.

The judge accepted that Gibb sought legal advice, given in good faith by the highly reputable newspaper’s staff, before publication, and that Seckerson had a genuine concern about the use made of expert medical evidence in criminal trials.

But the foreman should not have disclosed the approach taken to the evidence by other jurors. It offended against the secrecy of the jury room.

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