What is contempt of court and why was Tommy Robinson guilty of it?

Tommy Robinson has been jailed for contempt of court after he filmed defendants accused of the sexual exploitation of young girls and live-streamed the footage, in breach of a reporting ban.

Here are some key questions arising from the case.

– What is contempt of court?

Cabinet meeting
Cabinet meeting

Contempt of court legislation exists to ensure the fairness and integrity of criminal trials.

The law is contained in the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which states that contempt arises when there is a “substantial risk of serious prejudice”.

As in the Robinson case, an order may be made under section 4(2) of the Act to postpone reporting of a trial until its conclusion, where a judge believes it is necessary.

When making such an order, a judge has to balance the interests of justice in a fair trial taking place with other interests including free speech and open justice.

In most cases when someone is alleged to be in contempt of court, the matter will be referred to the Attorney General.

As well as breaching a reporting restriction, contempt can also be committed in other ways, including by taking photographs in the precincts of the court or attempting to speak to a juror.

– Why was Tommy Robinson found to be in contempt of court?

Court stock
Court stock

Two senior judges found English Defence League founder Robinson was in contempt when he filmed defendants accused of the sexual exploitation of young girls and live-streamed the footage, in breach of a reporting ban, outside Leeds Crown Court in May 2018.

Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Warby found him in contempt in three respects.

They concluded he was in contempt by breaching the reporting restriction imposed on the trial, by live-streaming the video from outside the public entrance to the court and by “aggressively confronting and filming” some of the defendants.

– What exactly was wrong with what Robinson did?

A reporting restriction was put in place to postpone the publication of any details of the case until the end of a series of linked trials involving 29 defendants to ensure all defendants received a fair trial.

By filming defendants and broadcasting the footage on social media, Robinson was in breach of the reporting restriction.

The judge said the content of the video “gave rise to a substantial risk that the course of justice in that case would be seriously impeded” and the confrontation of the defendants was a direct interference with the course of justice.

– Why have journalists been allowed to film Robinson arriving at the Old Bailey?

Old Bailey stock
Old Bailey stock

There were no reporting restrictions imposed on Robinson’s case so therefore members of the press were allowed to film him entering and leaving the court building.

– What is the punishment for contempt of court?

The potential penalties for contempt of court are imprisonment, a suspended sentence or an unlimited fine. It carries a maximum sentence of two years.