Crime, Courts and Tribunals

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Crime: Media coverage prior to any court case

- Covering crime stories presents contempt of court dangers for the media, because an arrest, an oral charge, service of a written charge, or the issue of a summons or an arrest warrant makes a case 'active' under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

- There could well be libel risks if a suggestion is published, prior to any charge, that a suspect is guilty of a crime, if what is published identifies the suspect.

- But if the police or another governmental agency in an official statement identifies a person as a suspect, it is safe to report the statement.

- Some police informants are protected by anonymity orders. Teachers accused of an offence against a pupil have anonymity unless they are charged.

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Crimes: Categories and definitions

- There are three main categories of criminal offences:

  • Indictable only - which can only be dealt with by a crown court
  • Either-way - whcih can be dealt by either a crown court or a magistrates court
  • Summary - almost all cases are dealt with by magistrates court

- If a 'strict liability' - the defendant can be convicted even if he or she had no clear 'intention' to do wrong

- A media organisation which fails to report an offence or charge accurately might be successfully sued for libel by the defendant.

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Magistrates courts: Summary offences

- Trial and sentencing at magistrates courts are known as summary proceedings.

- Automatic reporting restrictions, under section 8C of the Magistrates' Courts Act limit what the media can report from pre-trial hearings.

- Trials at a magistrates court can usually be reported fully and contemporaneously.

- Magistrates can jail a convicted defendant for up to 6 months for one offence and up to 12 months for two or more offences.

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Magistrates courts: Most serious criminal cases

- An indictable-only case will be 'sent to trial' to the crown court.

- A denied either-way case can be tried by magistrates or by a jury. The defendant can choose a trial by jury.

- Reporting restrictions in section 52A of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 automatically apply to the media reports of all preliminary hearings in the magistrates court if the case retains potential for jury trial.

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Crown courts and appeal courts

- Crown courts deal with most serious criminal cases.

- Crown court judges rule on law and decide on punishment, and in trials juries decide whether each charge is proved.

- Automatic reporting restrictions limit what the media can report from most crown court hearings held prior to trial.

- A defendant convicted in a crown court can seek to appeal and therefore go to the Supreme Court.

- Crown couts hear appeals from magistrates courts against convictions of sentences.

- The High Court is also an appeal court for certain matters.

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Juveniles in criminal and anti-social behaviour ca

- Most juveniles charged with a crime are dealt with by youth courts. The public cannot attend these courts but journalists can.

- Section 49 of the Children and Young Person's Act 1933 bans media reporting from identifying anyone ages under 18 involved in youth court cases whether as a defendant, witness or crime victim.

- This anonymity can be lifted, in the case of a convicted juvenile, to allow media to identify him or her in the public interest - eg- after persistant offending.

- There is no automatic anonymity for juveniles involved in adult court proceedings but an adult court can make an order under Section 39 of the 1933 Act to give the juvenile anonymity.

- Courts can impose orders to ban anti-social behaviour. The default position in law is that a juvenile made subject to such an order or accused of breaching one, can be identified, unless a Section 39 order ir made.

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Sexual offences

- It is illegal for the media to identify the victimes or alleged victimes of sexual offences - including **** and sexual assault - in reports of these crimes or of court cases which follow.

- The law gives anonymity to the victimes and alleged victims of voyeurs and 'flashing' and to people allegedly or actually trafficked to be prostitutes.

- A court can remove the anoymity in certain circumstances but this rarely happens.

- There is a danger of 'jigsaw identification', particularly when several media organisations are covering a case of alleged sex abuse within a family.

- A victim/alleged victim who is 16 or over can waive his/her anonymity by giving a media organisation written consent to being identified.

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Court reporting - other restrictions

- It is illegal to take photographs of, film or sketch people in a court or its precinct.

- It is also illegal to make an audio recording of a court hearing without permission.

- Journalists have a general permission to tweet, email or text from the courtroom when reporting, but other use of mobile phones there is a punishable as a contempt of court.

- It is illegal to seek to discover or to publish, what a jury discussed in deliberating on a verdict or how an individual juror voted in the verdict.

- Publication of material identifying a juror may be held to be a contempt of court.

- In certain categories of case it is contempt of court to publish material heard by a court in private.

- An order under Section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, prohibits publication of a name or information which has been withheld from the public proceedings of the court - for example - the name of a blackmail victim.

- Section 46 of the Youth Justic and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 allows a court to give an adult witness in a criminal case lifelong anonymity in media reports.

- In exceptional cases, the High Court has given convicted offenders indefinite anonymity, so the media cannot reveal their whereabouts after they are released.

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Civil courts

- Civil courts handle most civil litigation. The High Court deals with the more serious or high-value claims. 

- Civil court case hearings are mainly conducted by reference to documents. A journalist has rights to see the key documents of cases heard in public.

- Civil courts can impost reporting restrictions. Contempt law applies to media coverage reports of their cases, but it is less restrictive if no jury is involved.

- Magistrates handle some types of civil cases.

- The county courts deal with bankruptcy cases.

- Journalists need to take care before suggeseting a person is bankrupt or a company is insolvent, because this could be defamatory if untrue.

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Family courts

- Family courts are difficult to report, because reporting restrictions apply in many cases.

- A child involved in ongoing proceedings under the Childrens Act 1989 should not be identified in media reports of such cases, unless the courts authorise it.

- The High Court has had for decades wide-ranging powers to protect the welfare of children and others, including anonymity orders, and the new, unified Family Court will retain these powers.

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Open justice and access to court information

- A journalist arguing against being excluded from a court represents the under public's interest in open justice.

- Common law, statute and courts' prodecual rules enshrine the open justice principle, but do allow courts to sit in private in some circumstances.

- Criminal courts should give reporters basic details of cases, including magistrates' names. Defendants details should normally be given in open court.

- Reporters covering criminals trials should be allowed to see case materials unless a legal reason prevents this.

- A potocol enables the media access to some types of prosecution material, for example, photos, video footage - to help it report a trial.

- The Civil Procedure Rules enables journalists to get copies of and inspect documents in civil cases.

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Challenging the courts

- Challenges to reporting restrictions can be made by a reporter addressing the court or by an editor writing to it. IF this fails the challenge can be taken to a  higher court.

- An order under Section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 should only be made if the relevent name or matter has already been deliberately withheld by the court from its public proceedings.

- A court order bestowing anonymity on safety grounds is only justified if the risk which publicity would create for that person is 'real and immediate', verified by evidence.

- An order under Section 4(1|) of the Contempt of Court Act to postpone media reporting of a case shold only be made to avoid a substancial risk of prejudice to a pending or imminent hearing.

- A Section 39 order cannot be made in respect of an adult or a dead juvenile. It can be argued that a baby or toddler is too young to need it.

- Journalists arguing for a youth court, magistrates court or crown court to permit reports of a case to identify a juvenile defendant can cite Home Office and CPS guidance on this.

- An anonymity order under Section 46 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 should only be made if the witness is eligible and if the order is needed to achieve one of the section's purposes.

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Coroners courts

- The purpose of an inquest is to find out who a deceased person and how he/she died.

- A coroner can exclude the public and journalists from an inquest on grounds of national security.

- Coroners can impose reporting restrictions.

- Inquests are court hearings, and so are covered by the law of Contempt of Court Act which can affect media coverage.

- A treasure inquest decides if a found, historical object should be classed as 'treasure' in which case a museum is given the opportunity to acquire it.

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Tribunals and public inquiries

- Most types of tribunals adjunicate in disputes in specialist areas of law. Some are regulatory tribunals for professions, eg - doctors and lawyers.

- Employment tribunals can make temporary anonymity orders in cases involving sexual misconduct.

- Media reports of the public proceedings of tribunals are protected by qualified privilege and, as regards those classed as courts, by absolute privilege when reports are contemporaneous.

- For any tribunal classed as a court, contempt law applies.

- Media reports of the public proceedings of public inquiries are, as regards defamation actions, protected by either qualified privilege or absolute privilege.

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Contempt of Court

- For the media, the greatest danger of committing contempt of court lies in publishing materials which, under Contempt of Court Act 1981, could be ruled to have created a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to an 'active' case.

- Certain types of information are more likely than others to be regarded as creating such risk - for example - details of the previous convictions of a defendant awaiting trial.

- Journalists should know when under Act a criminal or civil case becomes active and when it ceases to be active - because the 'active period' determines what can be published.

- Juries are rarely used in civil cases, so the media have greater leeway about what can be published about active civil cases than they have in relation to active criminal cases.

- In prosectuing under the Act for strict liability contempt the Attorney General does not have to prove intent to cause prejudice.

- Under Section 4(2) a court can order the media to postpone a report of a court case or part of it, to avoid substantial risk of prejudice.

- Section 5 provides a defence for a published discussion in good faith of public affairs where the risk of prejudice is merely incidental to the discussion.

- When during a trial there are legal discussions or ruling which occur in the jury's absence, the media should not report such material until all verdicts are reached.

- Under the Courts Act 2008, any party, including a media organisation, held to have committed 'serious misconduct' affecting a court case could be liable for huge costs.

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