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Justice: Pre-trial Publicity

Volume 733: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are considering legislation to strengthen measures against pre-trial publicity which may prejudice a fair trial or undermine the principle of the presumption of innocence.

My Lords, there are no current plans to legislate. The Government referred the subject to the Law Commission in the summer and we will study with interest its conclusions in due course.

My Lords, this Question was prompted by the case of Mr Jefferies in particular. He recently gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry and described how, although innocent of any crime, he was vilified in the press to such an extent that he was in fear of his life. Any of us as citizens could imagine ourselves being caught in such circumstances simply by being linked through coincidence or circumstance to a crime. Although I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has shown himself willing to prosecute in such cases, will the Government none the less look at amending, for example, the Contempt of Court Act so that action can be taken at an earlier stage rather than when havoc has already been wrought on innocent victims’ lives?

My Lords, I think that the response to the noble Baroness’s question reflects concern in all parts of the House about this matter. There are a number of problems with the operation of the contempt laws which are set out in detail in the Law Commission’s Eleventh Programme. Since 1981, when the Contempt of Court Act was enacted, the world of publishing has evolved considerably in terms of technology and the structure of the media, and the internet is now a significant influence in this area. That is why we have referred the matter to the Law Commission. In no sense should this be taken as our kicking it into the long grass or as the Attorney-General not appreciating the real public concern about these matters.

My Lords, some in the press take a gamble with pre-trial publicity that the suspect will be charged and convicted, after which there will, of course, be no proceedings. In the McCann and Jefferies cases, they then became completely contrite and settled the claims without any question. Should they not lose a day’s edition as a result of circumstances as bad as that? Can we not have measures that will really bite on the press when it goes astray?

My Lords, my noble friend’s idea is an interesting one. I understand—just a thought—that an editor has not been sent to prison for contempt since 1948. The Attorney-General, who has been alive to this matter, said in a lecture at City University on 1 December that, in his opinion, the press has been pushing at the boundaries and in a sense has subtly been seeking guidance on what is acceptable. I hope that the Attorney-General’s action has given it suitable guidance that we take this matter very seriously.

My Lords, while I am confident that the Attorney-General will keep a watchful eye on this issue and commence proceedings, as he has indicated, where necessary—as I had to do two or three times—I also wonder whether standards have deteriorated. Have there been discussions—should there be discussions—with the press generally to try to avoid prejudice long before contempt proceedings have to be contemplated?

My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned former Attorney-General. At the City University lecture to which I referred, the Attorney-General said that it appeared to him that,

“the press had lost any sense of internal constraint and felt able, indeed entitled, to print what they wished, shielded by the right of ‘freedom of expression’ without any of the concomitant responsibilities”.

We are indeed making it clear to newspapers that the law exists in this area. As he has already demonstrated, the Attorney-General is willing to follow the example of his predecessor and take action under that law.

My Lords, it is not only the press which is to blame here; the police made no secret of the fact that they had arrested Mr Jefferies on suspicion of murder. Should there not be a prohibition on the police announcing that sort of arrest until someone is actually charged with an offence?

Again, that is very sensible. One of the things that has come out of recent revelations is a perhaps unhealthy linkage between the press and the police in high-profile cases. The police themselves should be very concerned to observe all proprieties when dealing with such serious matters.

Will the Minister bear in mind that the Contempt of Court Act 1981 liberalised the law precisely because the previous law restricted newspapers from publicising matters of public interest, in particular scandals such as the thalidomide affair?

My Lords, we are aware of that, and we are very concerned to make sure that we get the balance right. However, where the press’s desire to sensationalise actually jeopardises a case, either by prejudicing the case against an innocent man or, almost as bad, so prejudicing a case that someone who is guilty has to be released, it cannot be in the interests of justice.

My Lords, the noble Lord has told us what the Government intend to do and I think that they are wise to involve the Law Commission in this matter. However, he will know, as we all do, that Parliament’s record in implementing the Law Commission’s reports is not exactly very good—it is not a speedy process. Will the noble Lord note, certainly from the mood of the House this afternoon, that if the Law Commission reports on this, the feeling would be that it is not a report that can hang around for two, three or four years before Parliament looks at it? The matter will need some urgency once they have had a look at it.

I thank the noble Lord for his comments. I am the Minister responsible for liaison with the Law Commission. One of the things I said to Mr Justice Munby, the retiring head of the Law Commission, is that during my stewardship I would hope that we could remedy some of the faults that he indicated and that, certainly on this point, we would approach any Law Commission report with a due sense of urgency.

Does the Minister agree that one of the problems is that the media have confused their right of freedom of expression, which in the European convention contains many legitimate restrictions, with the rights of self-expression which we may accord to individuals without damage to others?

I agree, but also the law is very clear. I tend to agree with the Attorney-General that the media have been pushing the envelope of the law to an extreme. That is why he is taking action.