Tommy's Only Gone and Done It
Right-wing activist Tommy Robinson’s obstruction in the course of justice demonstrates the complex nature of contempt of court.
The long-running case began in May 2017 when Robinson – real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, 35, of Bedfordshire – committed contempt of court by filming a video during a gang rape trial outside Canterbury’s Crown Court.
Contempt law is intended to allow for fairer trials, ensure that justice is served and to avoid outside influences impacting the case at hand.
Contempt of court is a criminal offence which can result in defendants being jailed for a maximum of two years and/or fined an unlimited amount.
McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists states: “The law of contempt protects the integrity of the administration of justice and the fundamental principle that a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
#FreeTommy . . . A demonstration held in Copenhagen, Denmark
At the time, Judge Heather Norton gave Robinson three months imprisonment which was suspended for 18 months meaning Robinson’s sentence was delayed, providing he did not commit further offences.
She said: “This is not about free speech, not about the freedom of the press, nor about legitimate journalism, and not about political correctness,
“It is about preserving the integrity of the jury to continue without being intimidated or being affected by irresponsible and inaccurate reporting, if that’s what it was.”
Tommy Robinson, ex-leader and founder of the English Defence League (EDL), breached the Contempt of Court Act 1981 for a second time when he broadcast an hour-long video report to Facebook from outside Leeds Crown Court.
Contempt arises when published material creates a ‘substantial risk of serious prejudice’ to the ‘active’ court proceedings, as told by NcNae’s. Proceedings become ‘active’ once a person has been arrested, once an arrest warrant is issued, when a summons is issued – an order by a court requiring an individual to appear in court – and when a person is charged orally; by means of speech.
Proceedings cease to become ‘active’ when; the arrested person is released without charge, the defendant/s is freed from a criminal charge by being found not guilty, when the case if discontinued, and when the defendant is found unable to understand the criminal charges put against them.
The type of material that breaches the 1981 Act includes reference to the defendant’s previous convictions, information suggesting the defendant is dishonest and of bad character, evidence linking the defendant directly to the case of which accused, in addition to other information which suggests that the defendant is guilty.
The ex-EDL leader breached the act by suggesting the defendants were of bad character and by linking them directly to the case on trial at Leeds Crown Court. Robinson in the live stream said: “As you can see, there doesn’t seem like much guilt, doesn’t seem like anyone is ashamed,
“30% of the men are called Muhammad. Three of the men walking in here today are called Muhammad,”
In relation to the posted Facebook video, Judge Geoffrey Marson QC said: “Not only was it a very long video, but I regard it as a serious aggravating feature that he was encouraging others to share it and it had been shared widely.
“This is the nature of contempt.”
Far-right Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, posted a video response to proceedings on Twitter. He said: “The lights of freedom are going out. The authorities are trying to silence us.”
Left-wing activist, Owen Jones, shared a different opinion. He said: “He [Tommy Robinson] is not martyr to freedom of speech, just a career criminal with a history of mortgage fraud, football hooliganism and assault whose craving for publicity to put a critical court case at risk,”, as told in The Guardian.
Under the Criminal Justice Act 1925, it is illegal to take/try to take any film or photograph of any person in court, the court buildings themselves, surrounding area of a court and any person entering or leaving a court building. To publish such a photograph or film is illegal.
The far-right campaigner breached the act as he filmed Leeds Crown Court and the surrounding area, in addition to filming people entering Leeds Crown Court. By publishing the video to Facebook, Robinson again breached the act.
The same restrictions apply to both portraits and sketches made in court.
Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, contempt is a ‘strict liability’ offence. Strict liability means that the prosecution does not have to prove that the editor, media organisation – or in this case, Tommy Robinson – intended to create the risk of contempt. The intention is irrelevant. The fact that the prejudicial effect was created is enough for the defendant to be found guilty of contempt.
Caught on camera . . . Police arrest Robinson outside Leeds Crown Court
There are various defences available for those charged with Contempt of Court.
These include the ‘reasonable care’ defence, ‘defence to the media’ and ‘discussion of public affairs’ defence. However, none of these defences would be available to Robinson as he was fully aware the case was on-going, his report was not ‘fair and accurate’ and his reporting was deliberate, not incidental.
While not technically a defence, police appeals for media assistance have never resulted in a breach of contempt of court. The Attorney General in a 1981 debate on the Contempt of Court bill said: “The press has nothing to fear from publishing in reasoned terms anything which may assist in the apprehension of a wanted man and I hope that it will continue to perform this public service.” However, the Attorney General’s comments would not aid Robinson as the police hadn’t asked for Robinson’s help in tracing any suspect in relation to the trials being held at Leeds Crown Court.
Proceedings for contempt of court can only be started by a Crown court or higher, along with the consent of the Attorney General.
Robinson’s case was referred to the Attorney General on October 23. Complex matters regarding contempt are usually referred from Crown court judges to the Attorney General. The Attorney General will decide whether to drop the case or refer the case to the High court.
In referring the case to the Attorney General, Judge Nicolas Hilliard QC said: “All the evidence must be rigorously tested.”
Tommy Robinson case timeline . . . back-and-forth legal battles