Attorney-General v (1) MGN Limited (2) News Group Newspapers Ltd
Reference:  EWHC 2074 (Admin)
Court: Queen’s Bench Division (Admin)
Judge: Lord Chief Justice, Thomas LJ, Owen J
Date of judgment: 29 Jul 2011
Summary: NEWSPAPERS – COMMITTAL FOR CONTEMPT – STRICT LIABILITY – SECTION 2(2) CONTEMPT OF COURT ACT 1981 – SUBSTANTIAL RISK OF SERIOUS PREJUDICE OR IMPEDIMENT TO COURSE OF JUSTICE
Adrienne Page QC - Leading Counsel (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: Treasury Solicitor, RPC for 1st D, Farrer & Co for 2nd D
On 30 December 2010, Christopher Jefferies was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Joanna Yeates, whose body had been found on Christmas Day. Mr Jefferies had been the landlord of Ms Yeates and his arrest excited great interest in the press. It was quickly established that Mr Jefferies, who was never charged, was innocent of any involvement in the crime. He was released from police bail on 4 March 2011 and on 5 May 2011 Vincent Tabak pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Miss Yeates. On 12 May 2011, the Attorney-General was granted permission to bring proceedings for strict liability contempt under ss. 1 and 2 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981against two newspapers for their coverage of Mr Jefferies’ arrest: The Mirror, for articles published on 31 December 2010 and 1 January 2011 and The Sun for articles published on 1 January 2011.
The issues, which were to be determined in respect of each newspaper separately, were:
• Whether the publications created a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings against Mr Jefferies, which, on the information available at the time of publication, may have led to him being charged and tried, would have been seriously prejudiced (eg by the publication of material that impaired the safety of the trial); and/or
• Whether the publications created a substantial risk that the course of justice in such proceedings would have been seriously impeded by deterring potential witnesses from assisting the defence.
It was held that, as a matter of principle, the vilification of a suspect under arrest readily falls within the protective ambit of section 2(2) of the Act as a potential impediment to the course of justice. The impact of the articles in The Mirror on potential defence witnesses would have been extremely damaging to Mr Jefferies by deterring them from coming forward. In the case of The Sun, its coverage created a very serious risk of such damage to the defence. Fines were imposed of £50,000 on MGN Ltd and £18,000 on News Group Newspapers Ltd and costs on the standard basis.
The findings of strict liability contempt under issue (2) were novel. The Court acknowledged that it was “unusual” for a contempt case to be based on impediment and that the A-G’s argument that witnesses would be deterred from assisting the defence had not previously been subjected to any analysis in the authorities.
It was not entirely clear from the terms of the judgment whether, in respect of either or both newspapers, the Court also found contempt proved under issue (1) above. Both MGN Ltd and News Group Ltd, who have both made applications to the Supreme Court for permission to appeal, have based their appeals on the assumption that the sole or principal finding against them was under issue (2).