News story

Two newspapers fined for contempt of court over Levi Bellfield trial

High Court decides articles could have affected a linked trial.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd and Associated Newspapers Ltd have been found guilty of contempt of court for publishing potentially prejudicial material whilst the jury was considering its verdict in relation to Rachel Cowles’ alleged abduction by Levi Bellfield.

After a prosecution brought by the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC MP, Sir John Thomas and Mr Justice Tugendhat, at the High Court have today ruled that the allegations published by the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail that Levi Bellfield had a sexual interest in young girls was highly prejudicial to the his continuing trial on a charge of the attempted abduction of Rachel Cowles. The coverage went ‘way beyond’ what the jury had been told or what had been broadcast by the television networks following the conviction of Levi Bellfield for the murder of Milly Dowler. If the jury had not been discharged there would have been a seriously arguable point that any conviction was unsafe, the judges ruled.

The articles concerned Levi Bellfield and were published in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail on the 24 June 2011 after the jury had returned a guilty verdict in relation to Milly Dowler’s kidnap and murder but before it had reached a verdict in relation to the attempted kidnap of Rachel Cowles. Even though the jury was already aware of Levi Bellfield’s previous convictions for murder and there had already been earlier adverse publicity, this prosecution illustrates that the strict liability test under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 applies to coverage which nevertheless creates an additional risk of prejudice or exacerbates an existing risk of prejudice.

The Attorney General said:

This case shows why the media must comply with the Contempt of Court Act. It is unfortunate that the deluge of media coverage following the Milly Dowler verdict, not only by these papers but also other media outlets, led to the judge discharging the jury before they had completed their deliberations on a charge of attempted kidnap, ultimately depriving Rachel Cowles of a verdict in her case.

This prosecution is a reminder to the press that whilst the jury is still to reach a verdict on all counts of the indictment the Contempt of Court Act applies.

The essential points of the Attorney General’s case, framed within the definitions of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 were that:

  • although some bad character evidence relating to Levi Bellfield had been adduced at the trial, it had been accompanied by careful directions from the judge to the jury about how they should treat that information
  • the articles published by the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror contained bad character evidence which had been excluded from the trial or had not been sought by the prosecution to be adduced at all (in particular, allegations relating to his sexual interest in and rape of girls) - there was a clear risk that the effect of the publicity on the jury could not be cured by directions

The test of a substantial risk of serious prejudice had therefore been met.

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Published 18 July 2012