30th August 2023
Restrictions & Contempt: A guide to responsible reporting in UK courts

“This case has demonstrated that responsible, accurate reporting – a fundamental plank of democracy – can be achieved.”

Those were the words of James Justice Goss KC, as he neared the end of one of the most harrowing cases he may well ever sit in judgement of.

Lucy Letby was handed a rare whole-life term prison sentence after being found guilty of murdering seven babies in her care.

Reporting from a court can be one of the most daunting challenges a journalist will face – not least when such a high-profile trial is handed down to them.

With contempt of court and special restrictions often in place, it can feel like a bit of a minefield.

And while the press may have acted to the optimum standards this time, that has not always been the case.

In this blog, we look at notable mistakes journalists have made in courts before and how you can ensure you report responsibly moving forward.

Famous cases

Contempt of court laws are in place to ensure that juries are only influenced by the evidence put to them in court and the rules apply to everyone present – including judges, jurors and journalists. This ensures that the process is fair and non-prejudicial, and that the outcome is watertight.

Contempt can occur when any material is published that creates a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing “active” criminal proceedings. Proceedings become active when a suspect is first arrested and more recently, pre-charge suspects have also been afforded additional privacy protections at law and in editorial codes.

There have been a number of notable cases where journalists have been found guilty of doing exactly that over the last decade.

Last year, a blogger was jailed for what was deemed ‘abhorrent’ contempt of court following his coverage of former SNP leader Alex Salmond’s trial over sexual harassment allegations.

Craig Murray was present for two days of the trial and wrote multiple pieces, in which, he was deemed to have deliberately risked jigsaw identification of the alleged victims, who had been given anonymity under court orders. He was subsequently sentenced to eight months in prison.

Although not a journalist, 2019 saw far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon sentenced to nine months for contempt of court.

Yaxley-Lennon filmed the defendants in a sexual exploitation case arriving at court and broadcast the footage to Facebook in an hour-long stream that was seen by thousands of people.

Reporting restrictions were in place for the trial and meant the publication of materials was prohibited until its conclusion. It was also deemed that the aggressive manner in which he filmed the defendants could have influenced those already on bail not to cooperate with the trial.

It is not only those in the courtrooms that can be in contempt, however.

Back in 2011, both The Sun and Daily Mail were found guilty of contempt after publishing an image of Levi Bellfield, the defendant on trial for the murder of Milly Dowler, posing with a pistol on their websites.

The High Court found this added up to a substantial risk of influencing the jury and prejudicing the trial, as they were still in deliberation at the time of publication.

Associated Newspapers were ordered to pay a £10,000 fine as well as £25,000 towards the Attorney General’s costs.

How to get it right

The Impress Standards Code makes it clear to members that they must abide by media laws regarding reporting in courts, set out in the Contempt of Court Act 1981, and to be aware of any added restrictions a court may have in place (Clause 6.1, Justice).

For example, anonymity was granted by judges to 17 babies, their families and eight hospital employees in the Lucy Letby trial.

Our Code adds that publishers must avoid publishing any materials that may prejudice a trial. This can range from direct allegations of guilt to repeating a defendant’s previous convictions in print.

In addition, we set out guidance on the issue of identifying children in criminal cases:

“Publishers must not identify children who are, or have been, victims or witnesses in cases involving sex offences, regardless of whether the court or an appropriate adult allows publication. Publishers must also take care not to identify children indirectly. This may occur through so-called ‘jigsaw identification’” (Clause 6.2)

 It is also essential that publishers do not mention familial relationships between children and defendants by way of avoiding jigsaw identification.

We are also keen to remind publishers that criminal law has strict liabilities for publishing material that carries a risk of prejudice to criminal proceedings, subject to possible defences.

This means a reporter can be found guilty of prejudicing a trial without even intending to, so ensuring you are on top of the law and any restrictions is absolutely essential. By following the Impress Code, which exceeds legal obligations, publishers can ensure they are operating not only to the legal minimum but also according to ethical best practice.

You can find out more about our Standards Code here and read it in full below. It contains specific guidance on complying with reporting restrictions and avoiding contempt when undertaking court reporting.


About Impress 

Impress is a champion for news that can be trusted. We are here to make sure news providers can publish with integrity; and the public can engage in an ever-changing media landscape with confidence. We set the highest regulatory standards for news, offer education to help people make informed choices and provide resolution when disputes arise. 

Media enquiries

Louie Chandler: louie@impressorg.com / 02033076778