Contempt of Court and Social Media: What are the Issues in the Tommy Robinson case?

Posted on

Police Light

Now that the Attorney General has decided Tommy Robinson ought to have a fresh hearing in relation to contempt of court allegations, the spotlight has been thrown on what the doctrine means- and of course what might be next for Mr Robinson.

What is Contempt of Court?

Put simply, it occurs when there is an interference with the administration of justice, either inside or outside the courtroom. The behaviour shown must be serious enough to create a 'substantial risk' of causing prejudice to 'active' court proceedings.

In practice, the behaviour will be deemed significant enough that the perpetrator ought to be punished, not least to send a clear message to others that it will not be tolerated.

Behaviour capable of being classed as contempt is a broad category. For example, you could be guilty of contempt if:-

  • You take photographs or videos at a court building;
  • You are a juror, and you conduct online research about the case you have been asked to decide upon;
  • You have been made subject to a court order, and you deliberately disobey it;
  • You breach reporting restrictions by discussing the case publicly, e.g. via social media;

What has happened in this case?

In Robinson’s case, he conducted a live broadcast outside Leeds Crown Court in May 2018, with the video subsequently being uploaded to the Internet. His focus was a case which had been made subject to reporting restrictions, meaning that legally, no details of the case could be reported in the press.

As a result, Robinson was brought before the Court and given a 10 month prison sentence (plus three months for breaching an earlier suspended sentence, also for contempt.)

The Court of Appeal subsequently quashed the Leeds conviction and granted bail, with the Attorney General given time to consider the full case. He has now said that he believes it is in the public interest to bring fresh Contempt of Court proceedings.

How was the decision reached?

The Attorney General’s office has been explicit in stating that he acted independently in making his decision. He applied the same tests as are applied in relation to any prosecution- is there sufficient evidence, and is it in the public interest to do so?

‘The public interest’ takes into account several factors, including the seriousness of the offence, the suspect’s culpability and their age and maturity. It is also considered whether it is fair to pursue the case.

It is important to note the Attorney General’s view that there are ‘strong grounds’ to bring the fresh case. No doubt he will have borne in mind the level of attention that the case will receive when making his decision.

How can a person be punished?

The two key punishments as contained in the Contempt of Court Act 1981 are:-

  • A custodial sentence of up to two years (if the case is dealt with in the Crown Court or above, which in practice it will be);
  • A fine (unlimited if dealt with as above)

No doubt there will be substantial press coverage when the case comes before the High Court on 22 March. Until such time, press outlets will no doubt be careful in their reporting; the Attorney General has sounded a note of caution in this respect already.

Recent controversy surrounding Tommy Robinson and social media:

The most recent coverage relates to YouTube’s decision not to remove Robinson’s content from its site, citing its view that the videos posted ‘differed’ from the material posted to other internet site.

It has, however, taken steps which mean he cannot take advantage of the YouTube features which allow users to earn money from their content.

It is to be expected that Robinson will upload content to YouTube in the run up to the next hearing and on the day itself. It is important to remember that if he does so, and it is deemed to be in breach of the laws surrounding contempt, further action could well follow.

What is important to remember is that Robinson is entitled to a fair hearing, just as any other defendant in criminal proceedings. Anyone considering making a comment in the public domain would do well to take a step back and consider themselves facing similar action if they do so.

If you have any queries relating to the content of this article, please contact Amber Walker on 0113 284 5042 or via Amber.Walker@isonharrison.co.uk.

« Go backContact us »