The Attorney General and Solicitor General (the Law Officers) can be asked to look at some types of contempt of court.
The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) provides legal advice and support to the Attorney General and the Solicitor General (the Law Officers) who give legal advice to government. It is not possible to provide legal advice to members of the public, so this is general guidance.
One legal definition of a contempt of court is: ‘an act or omission calculated to interfere with the administration of justice’. There are special rules in relation to publications which may breach the contempt laws.
The Attorney General can take legal action in the public interest if a contempt of court has been committed. He or she can issue an advisory note to the media and public if there is a concern about a particular case, to flag up that people should take care.
The main types of contempt are publication contempt, juror contempt and contempt in civil cases.
Sometimes material is published which risks damaging a trial. This could be in a newspaper, television, radio, website or social media – all are covered by the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (the Act).
Publication can also be something a non-journalist puts out themselves, most often by social media, which then spreads.
Once somebody has been arrested or civil proceedings have started, the Act provides them with protection from publications which may prejudice or impede the course of Justice.
An example of prejudicial material might be information about a suspect or defendant’s previous convictions. There is a danger that if jurors on that case hear about such information outside of the court process it could affect the way they think about a case, or prejudice it so much that a trial cannot take place or has to be stopped.
The material could be in contempt of court and the Law Officers can take legal action against those responsible for the publication.
A juror may commit contempt if he or she disobeys an order of the judge or tells someone who is not on the jury details of the jury’s thoughts and decisions on the case they are considering.
Sometimes a judge will deal with contempt by a juror straight away - for example, a juror who disrupts the trial or is not on time. When a more detailed investigation is needed, a judge will often ask the Attorney General for advice – full details of the process
Contempt in civil cases
In civil cases, if one side makes a false statement in support of their case that will be a contempt of court and the Attorney General may be asked to consider if proceedings for contempt should be started. Although the parties to the proceedings may ask the Attorney General to intervene, the Attorney General prefers such referrals to come from the Court, which will be best placed to provide an objective assessment as to whether there has been a potential contempt.
People who claim to be victims of sexual offences have automatic anonymity for life whether adults or children, unless they themselves choose to lift their anonymity. The identities of people connected to them are sometimes withheld because it may lead to the victim being identified.
This is not contempt, as naming complainants in sexual offences is a criminal offence but the Attorney General still has a role to play as his or her consent to any prosecution is required. Breaches of anonymity will be investigated by the police in the ordinary way and then passed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for consideration. If the CPS decides that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction the details will then be passed to the Attorney General for him or her to decide if the public interest requires a prosecution. If the Attorney General consents then the CPS prosecutes the case in the usual way.
Breaking a court order
Sometimes a judge makes an order which prevents the reporting of a piece of information during a trial. The media are told about these orders. If these reporting restrictions are breached then that is a contempt (disobedience of a court order) and the Attorney General may be asked by the court to consider whether contempt proceedings should be started.
Injunctions are also a form of court order and if the terms of the order are breached then that may be a contempt. In most cases involving injunctions it will be for the person or organisation who originally asked for the injunction to decide whether they wish to bring contempt proceedings.
In a limited number of cases where the person or organisation involved is either unable to start contempt proceedings or there is a significant public interest in contempt proceedings being started, the Attorney General, again as Guardian of the Public Interest, may intervene.
An example of such an injunction is the one which relates to Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger. It forbids the publication of any details which purport to identify either Venables or Thompson.