Levi Bellfield newspaper articles were in contempt of court

20 July 2012 by

Millie Dowler

HM Attorney General v Associated Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2012] 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.

Sign up to free human rights updates by email, Facebook, Twitter or RSS

Related posts:


  1. Charles37 says:

    The fact remains that whatever the individual may have done, the court cannot take the crimes into account – only the actions of a press media that continually shows contempt for the law of the land and, in reality, would render most convictions for high profile crimes unsafe,

  2. forcedadoption says:

    The rather sassy twenties film star Mae West had it about right in court , when the irritated judge asked her “are you trying to show contempt for this court?” and she replied “No I’m just trying to hide it!”

Comments are closed.

Welcome to the UKHRB

This blog is run by 1 Crown Office Row barristers' chambers. Subscribe for free updates here. The blog's editorial team is:
Commissioning Editor: Jonathan Metzer
Editorial Team: Rosalind English
Angus McCullough QC David Hart QC
Martin Downs
Jim Duffy

Free email updates

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog for free and receive weekly notifications of new posts by email.




Aarhus Abortion Abu Qatada Abuse Access to justice adoption AI air pollution air travel ALBA Allergy Al Qaeda Amnesty International animal rights Animals anonymity Article 1 Protocol 1 Article 2 article 3 Article 4 article 5 Article 6 Article 8 Article 9 article 10 Article 11 article 13 Article 14 article 263 TFEU Artificial Intelligence Asbestos Assange assisted suicide asylum asylum seekers Australia autism badgers benefits Bill of Rights biotechnology blogging Bloody Sunday brexit Bribery British Waterways Board Catholic Church Catholicism Chagos Islanders Charter of Fundamental Rights child protection Children children's rights China christianity citizenship civil liberties campaigners civil partnerships climate change clinical negligence closed material procedure Coercion Commission on a Bill of Rights common law communications competition confidentiality consent conservation constitution contact order contact tracing contempt of court Control orders Copyright coronavirus coronavirus act 2020 costs costs budgets Court of Protection covid crime criminal law Cybersecurity Damages data protection death penalty defamation DEFRA deportation deprivation of liberty derogations Detention Dignitas diplomacy disability disclosure Discrimination disease divorce DNA domestic violence duty of care ECHR ECtHR Education election Employment Environment Equality Act Equality Act 2010 Ethiopia EU EU Charter of Fundamental Rights EU costs EU law European Convention on Human Rights European Court of Human Rights European Court of Justice evidence extradition extraordinary rendition Facebook Facial Recognition Family Fatal Accidents Fertility FGM Finance foreign criminals foreign office foreign policy France freedom of assembly Freedom of Expression freedom of information freedom of speech Gay marriage gay rights Gaza Gender genetics Germany Google Grenfell Gun Control Health HIV home office Housing HRLA human rights Human Rights Act human rights news Human Rights Watch Huntington's Disease immigration India Indonesia injunction Inquests insurance international law internet inuit Iran Iraq Ireland islam Israel Italy IVF ivory ban Japan joint enterprise judaism judicial review Judicial Review reform Julian Assange jury trial JUSTICE Justice and Security Bill Law Pod UK legal aid legal aid cuts Leveson Inquiry lgbtq liability Libel Liberty Libya lisbon treaty Lithuania local authorities marriage Media and Censorship mental capacity Mental Capacity Act Mental Health military Ministry of Justice modern slavery morocco murder music Muslim nationality national security naturism neuroscience NHS Northern Ireland nuclear challenges nuisance Obituary parental rights parliamentary expenses scandal patents Pensions Personal Injury physician assisted death Piracy Plagiarism planning planning system Poland Police Politics Pope press prison Prisoners prisoner votes Prisons privacy Professional Discipline Property proportionality prosecutions Protection of Freedoms Bill Protest Public/Private public access public authorities public inquiries quarantine Radicalisation rehabilitation Reith Lectures Religion RightsInfo right to die right to family life Right to Privacy right to swim riots Roma Romania round-up Round Up Royals Russia saudi arabia Scotland secrecy secret justice Secret trials sexual offence shamima begum Sikhism Smoking social media social workers South Africa Spain special advocates Sports Standing starvation statelessness stem cells stop and search Strasbourg super injunctions Supreme Court Supreme Court of Canada surrogacy surveillance sweatshops Syria Tax technology Terrorism tort Torture travel treason treaty accession trial by jury TTIP Turkey Twitter UK Ukraine universal credit universal jurisdiction unlawful detention USA US Supreme Court vicarious liability Wales War Crimes Wars Welfare Western Sahara Whistleblowing Wikileaks wildlife wind farms WomenInLaw Worboys wrongful birth YearInReview Zimbabwe


This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.

Our privacy policy can be found on our ‘subscribe’ page or by clicking here.

%d bloggers like this: