Levi Bellfield newspaper articles were in contempt of court
20 July 2012
HM Attorney General v Associated Newspapers Ltd & Anor  EWHC 2029 (Admin) (18 July 2012) Read judgment.
The Divisional Court ruled that reports of Levi Bellfield in the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, published while a jury was considering his charge of attempted kidnapping, were in contempt of court.
On 6 May 2011, Levi Bellfield’s trial for the murder of Milly Dowler and attempted kidnap of Rachel Cowles began. He had already been convicted in 2008 of the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy. On 23 June 2011, the jury convicted Mr Bellfield of the murder of Milly Dowler, but had yet to return a verdict on the charge of attempted kidnapping. The Daily Mail and Daily Mirror printed stories on 24 June 2011 including information that wasn’t before the jury in the trial. The question in the resultant contempt proceedings was whether these articles violated the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (CCA).
The jury was in fact discharged before delivering the second verdict because of the publicity. But this is not determinative of contempt proceedings: the ‘strict liability rule’ of the CCA holds that a publication will be in contempt if it
“creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.”
The Mail articles detailed allegations of a further murder and drug-induced rape of schoolgirls while Mr Bellfield worked as a nightclub bouncer. The Mirror article described Mr Bellfield’s depraved treatment of his ex-wife (Johanna Collins) and former girlfriend (Emma Mills) and an alleged rape of a disabled girl on a car bonnet. The judgment sets out the disturbing detail of the articles at §§21-27.
If the articles had been published in isolation, there would be little doubt that they created a significant risk of prejudice to the trial. The two complicating features here were:
- Given what was already before the jury, could the articles be said to create the risk of prejudice?
- And given the publicity already in the public domain, did the articles create a separate risk of prejudice?
The jury was already aware of the following:
- Mr Bellfield’s convictions for the two previous murders and one previous attempted murder.
- Evidence from Ms Collins and Ms Mills that did not relate to sexual abuse, Mr Bellfield’s sexual interests and to a previous alleged attempted kidnap.
- The jury had, of course, convicted Mr Bellfield of Milly Dowler’s murder.
In light of this, the newspapers submitted that (§28):
given what [the jury] knew about the depravity of Mr Bellfield, these further descriptions of his depravity could not have resulted in a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the proceedings. The jury would have disregarded the material and reached their verdict according to the evidence.
Sir John Thomas, giving the judgment of the court, disagreed. In particular it was the material relating to rape of schoolgirls that risked being considered to be relevant to the as yet undecided charge by a juror.
The second issue was the effect of previous publicity. The wave of publicity following Mr Bellfield’s previous murder convictions had been held by the trial judge not to prejudice the trial, given the passage of time and the judge’s directions.
However, after the verdict for Milly Dowler’s murder was returned, there was blanket television coverage. This included a Sky News programme including allegations linking Mr Bellfield to the same murder referred to in the Mail article, an ITN broadcast including Ms Collins’s recounting of the abuse she suffered and the BBC referring to “a long history of brutality”. Given these broadcasts, could the article be said to create a further risk of prejudice?
The Judge again held that it could. The key difference was that the newspaper articles contained allegations relating to sexual abuse of girls, rather than of adult women (§§36-7). This went “way beyond” what was covered in the television broadcasts and meant that the articles did “significantly exacerbate” the risk of prejudice.
Contempt continues to make the news in recent years, and we have recently posted on the area and its relation to free speech. Since that post, comments on Twitter have shown the difficulty of applying contempt laws in the context of modern communication have been further highlighted.
In that context, this was an ‘old-fashioned’ contempt case: it involved newspaper articles, published while a criminal trial is ongoing, where the issue is whether a risk of prejudice was created or not.
The decision has given rise to criticism. In particular, it has been asked whether a jury could possibly be prejudiced against a person whom they knew had committed murders before, and had convicted of a further murder. Both news groups are reported to be considering an appeal.
What is clear is that it is in these cases – where the courts go to such lengths to secure fair trials of the most reprehensible of actions – that the principles of justice grounding our laws are tested to their limits.
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