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Thursday, 24 November 2011

Fair trials and the freedom of the press: when fundamental principles conflict

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here.

Two principles fundamental to English law are open justice and freedom of the press. The right of the public to know via the press who has been charged with what is one of the key features that distinguishes a free society from the sort of tyrannies where those deemed not to be on message politically disappear and are never heard from again.

Equally fundamental, however, is the right to a fair trial, which requires among other things that an accused is judged solely according to the evidence before the court, not the fevered imaginings of the more populist elements of the press.

One very recent manifestation of that inherent conflict concerned a blog by a well-known political commentator about the Stephen Lawrence murder trial. The blog has been referred to the Attorney-General for consideration for prosecution for contempt of court. As the trial is still in progress nothing more will be said about it.

A recent occasion on which the courts had to consider the same issue, however, was the case of HM Attorney-General v MGN Ltd and another [2011] All ER (D) 06 (Aug), which arose out of the murder of Joanna Yeats at the end of 2010.

Police attention was initiallyfocused on Miss Yeats’ landlord, who was arrested but released without charge. Before suspicion had been lifted however, some elements of the press printed all manner of lurid allegations about him. In the event those mattered not, since the real murderer did not dispute the fact of having killed Miss Yeats. It was held however that if the landlord had faced prosecution, he would have been able to raise a serious argument that he could not receive a fair trial because of this adverse publicity. Even though the argument would probably have failed, it would have been properly made and therefore would have incurred tangible costs and delays to the trial process, and a possible ground of appeal.

Accordingly, even the most robust defenders of freedom of speech would have to concede some limitations on the right of the press to influence an extant trial.

The Yeats decision raised some important points about the present state of the law, and points for reform. What it did not consider, however, was the possible influence – not for the good – of the internet. As I wrote in an article on the case for Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, one of the central planks of the publishers’ defence was that the articles would have faded from the jurors’ memories by the time of the trial. But articles would still have been readily obtainable online.

Moreover, no prosecution for contempt of court will be possible in the case of articles published overseas, although they may be readily accessible to British citizens. For the same reason I have always suspected that superinjunctions for privacy would be a flash in the pan, since anyone minded to do so could expose material which is the subject of an injunction with impunity if they were based outside the jurisdiction.

It can only be hoped that the fair trial process is not destroyed in that fashion. For all of the arguments in favour of free speech, one can find many instances of tabloid journalism grossly interfering with justice. One thinks of Hollywood circuses from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of the 1920s (see New Law Journal [2011], vol 161, p 1150) to the OJ Simpson fiasco of more recent times: few would wish to see justice conducted – and corrupted – in the same manner in this country.

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