Guest blog: Solicitor General, Robert Buckland QC MP - raising awareness on contempt of court

5 May 2016

Solicitor General, Robert Buckland QC MP - raising awareness on contempt of court

Solicitor General

In mid-April, a semi-professional footballer named Gary Burnett appeared in the Royal Courts of Justice after making a dishonest insurance claim for whiplash following an accident at a McDonald's drive-thru.  He was caught out after tweeting about playing football less than 24 hours after the accident was supposed to have taken place.

I instigated contempt proceedings against Burnett last year in my capacity as Solicitor General. My view is that this was a serious case, highlighted by blatant dishonesty. Burnett was found guilty of contempt of court and was committed to 4 months in prison, suspended for 12 months.      

The power to bring contempt proceedings is one of the core public interest functions I share with the Attorney General as the Government's Law Officers. It is a responsibility we both take very seriously.

The Attorney General and I bring contempt of court proceedings independent of Government and only where we are satisfied that there is sufficient evidence and it is the wider public interest to do so. We can also issue an advisory note to the media and public if we judge there to be a risk of prejudicial comment in a particular case, like we did in relation to the Hillsborough inquest.

Our media advisories remind editors and publishers of their responsibilities under the Contempt of Court Act. The types of contempt we most often deal with include publication contempt - when material is published which risks damaging a trial or where reporting restrictions are breached and there is no criminal offence to cover the particular breach.

Naming complainants in sexual offences who have automatic anonymity for life is not considered contempt as it is a criminal offence, but the Attorney General's Office (AGO) still has a role to play as our consent to any prosecution is required.

My office also regularly receives referrals from courts asking for either the Attorney General or myself to consider bringing contempt proceedings against claimants or defendants in civil or family proceedings for allegedly making false statements or false disclosure statements. My office prefers such referrals to come from the Court directly rather than the legal parties involved, as the Court or Judge is best placed to provide an objective assessment as to whether there has been a potential contempt. As an example, I instigated contempt proceedings in the Burnett case after my office was approached by the judge who heard the civil complaint in Wigan County Court. 

I am also very keen to promote a greater awareness among the general public about what can and can't be said online.  This is a particularly important issue given the rise of social media and the instantaneous ability to comment with the press of a few buttons. It is an area that is of concern to others in the Criminal Justice System too: in the Angela Wrightson murder trial, Lord Justice Leveson said the case; "‚Ķfor the first time, raises the issue of how critical fair trial protections can be extended to prevent or control communications on social media".

You may have seen that the AGO has developed some infographics to help the public understand more about prejudicial comment online. In particular, we want to re-emphasise the message that the rules for social media users are the same as those for traditional media. Breaching reporting restrictions or naming complainants in sexual cases can - and has - also led to members of the public being prosecuted for contempt.

The graphics are available  here  and are really useful in helping explain in a very broad sense what people should be aware of when commenting about court cases online.

The ever-increasing expansion of social media throws up some real challenges in terms of what can be said online and the Government will need to work with the legal system to ensure the right to a trial without prejudice remains protected, that court orders are properly observed and that those who are entitled to anonymity receive it.

Robert Buckland QC MP is the Solicitor General for England and Wales