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February 8, 2012

Times contempt challenge ruled inadmissible

Categories: Contempt, News

Tags: contempt, ECHR, European Court of Human Rights, Freedom of Expression

ECHR rules challenge in relation to jury deliberations inadmissible


A seven judge chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has unanimously ruled Seckerson and The Times Newspapers Limited v the United Kingdom (application nos. 32844/10 and 33510/10) inadmissible.

Mr Seckerson was the foreman of a jury in a shaken baby case. The jury reached a guilty verdict by a majority of 10-2. After the case, Mr Seckerson spoke to The Times about his concerns about the conviction and the use of expert medicial evidence, and the newspaper published two articles. The Attorney General brought contempt proceedings and both were found guilty under section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Mr Seckerson was fined £500 and the Times was fined £15,000 and ordered to pay over £27,000 in costs. The convictions were based on two particular quotes from the articles:

“…the consensus was taken three minutes after the foreman was voted in. It was 10-2 against, all based on the evidence. After that there was no going back.”

“Ultimately the case was decided by laymen and laywomen using that despicable enemy of correct and logical thinking, that wonderfully persuasive device, common sense.”

The applicants complained that the conviction and fines breached their Article 10 right to freedom of expression. The Court stated that Article 10 does not guarantee wholly unrestricted freedom of expression, even where the press report on matters of public concern. The rule in question addresses the legitimate aim of maintaining the authority and impartiality of judicial decision makers. It is vital that jurors are free to air their views on all aspects of the case frankly in the jury room without fear of these views being disclosed to, and criticised in, the press. The court reiterated that the secrecy of jury deliberations is a crucial and legitimate feature of English trial law. The court went on to state that an absolute rule cannot be seen as unreasonable or disproportionate in these circumstances as qualifications or exceptions would lead to doubt, which would undermine the rule and the legitimate objective it seeks to secure.

The Court noted the proportionate approach taken by the Attorney General, who brought the contempt action based only on small parts of the articles, and whose counsel accepted before the domestic court that a juror expressing general views on the merits of the jury system or reliance on expert evidence would not breach section 8. The Court also noted that it was not being called upon, in the present case, the assess whether section 8 would be compatible with Article 10 in circumstances involving research into jury methods, or where the interests of justice could be said to require disclosure of jury deliberations. In the circumstances, the findings of contempt and fines imposed were proportionate to the legitimate aim of maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. The case reaffirms the compatibility of the absolute rule relating to the confidentiality of jury deliberations with Article 10.

The ECHR decision can be found here.