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When reporting as a journalist you might have to report on a story which involves a court of law. Reporting from a court of law comes with restrictions which if you don’t adhere to could lead to you breaking the law. If you break the law while reporting a case which is taking place in court you can be potentially fined with the amount depending on the seriousness of the law you break or possibly a custodial sentence. In this essay, I will look at the major restrictions placed on journalists when reporting from a court of law in the UK and why these have been put in place. The first law I will explain is the Contempt of court law.
Contempt of court law protects the integrity of the legal process from outside influence. There are various types of possible reporting restrictions, some of which apply automatically while others are at the discretion of the court (BBC Academy, 2018). Contempt of court is the major law put in place to stop journalists affecting a case taking place in a court of law. This law has been put in place to stop journalists affecting a jury during the case by what they publish in their form of journalism whether it be print or media. Another example of Contempt of court described by (BBC Academy, 2018) You can also commit a contempt of court by, for example, interviewing a witness before a trial or even putting pressure on them to provide an interview after the trial. It’s important not to break a contempt of court law as you can be fined for the crime you commit an example of this comes from (Rawlinson, 2016) “The publisher of GQ magazine has been fined £10,000 after being found in contempt of court over an article that seriously risked prejudicing the phone hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson.” This was a case when a chief executive for a newspaper was being investigated for breaking the law which went to court. During the trial, the GQ published wrote remarks about Rebekah Brooks the chief executive in question in an article which was published. The judge of the case thought that these remarks would prejudice the court case and decided to fine GQ magazine for the publication.
The contempt of court action can come into place in court when the proceedings of the court case are “active” as described by (Contempt of Court Act 1981 Explained, Inbrief.co.uk) CCA 1981 only applies where: a publication carries a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing justice in the proceedings, and proceedings are active.
Criminal proceedings are generally active from the point of arrest without a warrant, issue of a warrant for arrest or of a summons, service of an indictment, or oral charge, whichever happens first. Proceedings cease to be active upon acquittal or sentence; any verdict which puts an end to the proceedings being reached; a discontinuation of the proceedings. (Contempt of Court Act 1981 Explained, Inbrief.co.uk)
There are laws which are put in place early on in cases which take place in magistrates and court cases which can only allow journalists to report certain aspects of the case which is taking place in court. In most cases, the court can lift the restrictions placed on the journalist which report the case, however, this is at the discretion of the court. There are many rules which automatically stop journalists reporting certain aspects of the case in early hearings, this applies for both crown court and magistrates court.
In the magistrates’ court, rules apply and limit what can be reported about preliminary hearing in indictable only and either way cases, and also to pre-trial hearings in cases regarding summary offenses. Issues such as bail and transfer to the crown court are dealt with at these types of hearings (BBC Academy, 2018). In crown court you have to be careful what you report as in crown court pre-trial and preparatory hearings take place, you need to be careful on what you report on during these hearings as they are done when the jury is not present and is used for the judge to decide what evidence he presents to the jury. If you report what is said during these hearings, then you could potentially influence the jury and commit contempt of court. However, during pre-trial and preparatory hearings journalists are allowed to report on:
All these restrictions put in place during cases in magistrates’ and crown courts are used to limit the publication by journalists of any evidence or information which could influence a jury by information outside of the court. An example of a news outlet potentially committing contempt of court during a pre-trial or preparatory hearing and possibly in the middle of the trial is if the news outlet were to publish an article talking about how the accused had been convicted previously for the same offense of which they are being trialed for. This information is usually withheld from the jury as stated previously, and if this article was read by a member of the jury it could influence them.
In some cases, in court children are the ones who have committed the crime or have been a victim of the crime. A child is anyone considered under the age of 18 and these cases is usually dealt with in youth courts. When reporting a case involving children you have to be careful on how you report the case as they have to be treated differently to how an adult would be trialed.
There are many restrictions on reporting cases involving children as described in (Reporting Legal Proceedings, Channel 4) Reports of proceedings in the Youth Court must not contain the name, address, or school or any particulars likely to lead to the identification of anyone under 18 involved in the proceedings as defendant or witness or contain a photograph showing any such juvenile. Adults involved in Youth Court proceedings can be identified as long as, in doing so, this does not identify any juvenile involved in the proceedings. These rules do not apply where a juvenile has been committed to the Crown Court. Note that a Youth Court may lift these automatic restrictions in certain circumstances but the juvenile cannot waive the protection even if he or she actively wants to be identified. Once a juvenile who has been involved in Youth Court proceedings reaches 18, the reporting restrictions no longer apply.
Journalists reporting from a court where sexual offenses are being trialed need to take care when reporting. Victims of sexual offenses are given anonymity for life, this means any reporting which might identify a victim of a sexual offense could lead to the journalist being punished. The law gives automatic anonymity to the victim of sexual offenses from when the complaint is made by them or by someone else that they have been a victim of a sex crime. It applies whether or not:
When reporting a sexual offenses case, journalists will always do their best to remove identifying statements from court reports. These tend to feature specific to the victim, such as age, location or certain dates. Identifying the defendant is in the public interest, particularly when the crime is serious and local. But identifying the defendant can potentially identify the victim. It is a difficult balance, made on a case by case basis (Vale, 2015)
To conclude, contempt of court law is the main law used to restrict journalists from reporting certain information from court cases which could damage the court. There are many restrictions which fall underneath the contempt of court law. When adults are being trialed you can publish their name, address, charge, where their trial is taking place, the judge and the lawyer unless they are a victim of a sexual offense charge. On the other hand, for children you cannot produce information like their names, address etc. as the children’s information is protected by restrictions sanctioned by the court. It’s also crucial to not publish information which could prejudice the jury as this will lead to contempt of court. It’s important not to commit contempt of court as a journalist as it’s important not to affect a trial you’re reporting on by putting it under disarray by committing contempt of court. As you want the trial to be fair and also not allow yourself to gain a bad reputation by breaking the law.
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