UK Reviews Rules on Contempt of Court

Media companies may have to pay a fine based upon percentage of turnover for breaching laws that limit reporting on criminal cases, under proposals published by the Law Commission today.

The three-month consultation comes at a time when free speech and freedom of the press are under intense scrutiny following the recent Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking, and the subsequent Report into press standards and ethics which was also published today.

The government believes that the laws on contempt of court need simplifying in four key areas:

  • Publication, publishers and modern media
  • Juror contempt, and
  • Contempt in the face of the court.

What is contempt of court?

The laws on contempt of court aim to ensure fair trials by limiting juries’ exposure to prejudicial material and state how jury members must behave. Today's announcement follows recent high-profile cases involving the role of social media and the Internet, which include:

(1) a juror who was found to have researched the defendant using the Internet;

(2) the first internet contempt by publication, which concerned the posting of an incriminating photograph of a defendant on a website;

(3) contempt proceedings for the vilification of Chris Jefferies during the investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates; and

(4) proceedings for contempt by publication following the collapse of the prosecution of Levi Bellfield.

All these cases illustrate the challenge that is posed by new media to the existing laws on contempt of court which pre-date the Internet and social media.  They also illustrate the continuing need for limits on media coverage in order to protect the administration of justice and the right to a fair trial. Fines on media companies for contempt typically range between £25,000 and £75,000 with additional court costs.

For many years the Internet has been seen as a  'no man's land' for laws and regulations. Many users hide behind a cyber identity to avoid facing the consequences of inappropriate or illegal behaviour. The recent rise of the Internet 'troll'  shows that urgent action now needs to be taken to redefine the legal boundaries in order to protect innocent people.

The consultation runs until 28th February 2013.

Further information