As a journalist, there are certain rules you must undertake when reporting the courts and crimes which have gone on trial. Firstly it is important to remember when a case becomes active, you run of the risk of being in contempt of court. The case becomes legally active when one of the following is acted upon: when an arrest is made; when an arrest warrant has been issued; when a person has been charged or when the magistrates order a summons. A magistrates is a civil officer who lays out the law in criminal offences but civil cases will not be dealt with by the magistrates because this is not the order of the courts.
Prejudice is also a key factor in contempt of court, because it mean
s writing an article or a piece that gives your audience and readers an opinion which may not necessarily be in the favour of the defendants. If material which creates SUBSTANTIAL risk of severe prejudice to the active proceeds, regardless of your intent when writing, then you are guilty of contempt of court once the material you have produced is published or broadcasted. The ACTIVE period of a criminal or civil case determines what can be published by a journalist.
However, the Contempt of Court Act 1981 is more lenient on civil cases because juries are rarely used, so journalist have much greater leeway about civil cases than criminal ones. If contempt of court is committed, then the suspect may go free from a crime they may have committed because they would not have had a free and fair trial. The person who then published the piece, could face jail themselves.
Whilst also in the courtroom, journalists must remember that if the jury is not present in the courtroom and there are legal discussions, they should not report until verdicts are reached.
Journalists may report information before the trial in the following seven points:-
- Names, addresses, ages and occupations of the defendants
- The name of the court and the names of magistrates
- Names of lawyers or the barristers who are present in the room
- The charges to be faced
- Any arrangements of bail conditions
- Date and location of where the case is adjourned
- And whether there was an operation of any legal aid
The 2003 Courts Act introduced law meaning that huge costs could be liable to anybody, including journalists and media bodies, IF they are held to have committed serious misconduct.
Absolute privilege is a defence for libel when court reporting, but this will be explained in my future blog on Qualified privilege and Libel.