Attorney General v Punch Ltd & Another

Reference: [2002] UKHL 50; [2003] 1 AC 1046; [2003] 2 WLR 49; [2003] 1 All ER 289; [2003] EMLR 141

Court: House of Lords

Judge: Lords Steyn, Hoffmann, Nicholls, Hope & Walker

Date of judgment: 12 Dec 2002

Summary: Contempt of court – Criminal contempt – Human Rights - Intention to interfere with course of justice – Breach of injunction by person not party to action

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Instructing Solicitors: Treasury Solicitor for the Claimant; Henry Hepworth for the Defendants


The Attorney General brought proceedings against David Shayler, a former officer of the Security Service, alleging that he had disclosed to the media information which he was prohibited from disclosing by his terms of service. The AG obtained an injunction restraining S from disclosing any information obtained in the course of his employment. The terms of the injunction were capable of including information that was not confidential. Subsequently, S started writing a column in a magazine about the Security Service. The editor was aware of the terms of the order. Despite correspondence from the Treasury Solicitor, the magazine published an article by S which breached the order. Contempt proceedings were commenced against the editor for deliberately impeding or prejudicing the purpose of the order (the third party contempt jurisdiction). The judge held that publication of the article was a contempt, and fined the editor. The Court of Appeal allowed the editor’s appeal. The AG appealed.


Whether the editor was in contempt of Court.


Contempt of court – in the context of the third party contempt jurisdiction – was the intentional impeding or prejudicing of the purpose of the court. The “purpose” was simply that, pending its decision on the claims in the proceedings, the restrained act should not be done. Third parties were in contempt if they wilfully interfered with the administration of justice by thwarting the achievement of that purpose, even if the order was drawn in apparently excessive terms. The purpose of the order in this case was to preserve the confidentiality of the specified information pending trial so that the court could adjudicate effectively on the disputed issues arising in the action. The editor knew that the action against S raised confidentiality issues. He must also have appreciated that by publishing the article he was doing precisely what the order was intended to prevent. That was knowing interference with the administration of justice. Accordingly, the appeal would be allowed.


The House of Lords decision restates the orthodoxy as understood from the Spycatcher case: where a third party has knowledge of an order intentionally does an act to defeat the purpose of that order, then he is guilty of contempt. The decision, however, usefully sets out the position in relation to information in the public domain: “If the third party publishes information which is already fully and clearly in the public domain by reason of the acts of others, then the third party’s act of publication does not have this effect. It does not have an adverse effect on the administration of justice in the action. The court’s purpose in making its interlocutory order has, by then, already been defeated by the acts of others. This is so, whether those acts occurred before or after the court made its order.”