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August 2019
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Contempt of Court law prevents 'trial by media'… but what does that really mean?

Take great care when issuing a comment, or making a statement, if legal proceedings are involved. You could interfere with the course of justice, or prejudice a trial.

COCA bans you from publishing anything, before or during a trial, that could create a SUBSTANTIAL RISK of SERIOUS PREJUDICE to the trial.

And if you breach the law, you could be:

1. Given a telling off by a Judge.
2. Prosecuted and fined.

Contempt law is NOT in force all the time.

1. Proceedings have to be ACTIVE.
2. They primarily activate:
When someone is arrested or charged.
3. They de-activate:
When sentence has been passed.

It’s your job to find out if proceedings are active, and when the trial is. Phone the court, the CPS or the defence solicitor to find out.

Things that raise the risk level
1. The type of trial – crown court trials pose the biggest contempt risk.
2. When the trial is.
3. How memorable the crime is.

So …
You’re usually safe publishing many things if the trial is a long way off – ie, more than 6 months away. The closer the trial is, the more danger there is from contempt of court.

How does this affect you?

Once someone has been charged, you should only reveal their:
Job title.
Where they work.
What they have been charged with.
How long they have worked for you.
Action taken by the company (eg, the person has been suspended on full pay).

A safe comment: ‘Mr Smith remains suspended on full pay until after the trial. We cannot comment further for legal reasons. We will make a decision on his future after the trial.’

Do not use:
The defendant’s previous convictions or acquittals.
The defendant’s photograph or detailed description.
Any quotes or background material that asserts guilt, or innocence.
Any statement that the person charged is the person who committed the crime.

A useful exception:
You can write about the ISSUES arising from active court cases …

For example:

Bastows repeated their warning today of the danger of breaking into electricity sub-stations.
The reminder came as a man faced trial at Manchester Crown Court, charged with damaging a sub-station last year.
Bastows spokesman Melanie Bright said: ‘People who fool around at electricity sub-stations are not just risking prosecution. They are also risking their lives.’

This extract is taken from the PR Media Law Guide, price £19.95. To order a copy, contact:

Cleland Thom does media law training and consultancy to a number of corporation and public authorities, including GPSJ, United Utilities, World Trade Group, Herts County Council, London Borough of Brent and Three Rivers District Council.

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