It can now be reported that Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, convicted fraudster, sometime-football hooligan and self-reinvented free speech advocate, was on Friday 25 May 2018 imprisoned for 13 months for contempt of court after livestreaming a broadcast, including footage of participants in a criminal trial, outside Leeds Crown Court.
Some people will have seen reference to this on social media; others may have had the plight of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – to use his real name – drawn to their attention by the hordes of protestors storming London over the May bank holiday weekend. But there has not, until today, been mainstream coverage of the case due to a reporting restriction – what is known as a “postponement order” – that forbade publication of these facts until after the conclusion of the trial upon which he was purporting to “report”.
While, as we’ll see below, the reasons for the postponement order appear sound, the consequence of preventing fair and accurate reporting by responsible journalists was that there was no factual counterpoint to the selective and inaccurate details of Yaxley-Lennon’s situation that were inevitably flooded through social media by his knuckle-dragging cheerleaders, not least his racists-in-arms across the pond. Thus sprung a (largely unchallenged and unchallengeable) narrative of Tommy The Brave being arrested outside court for no reason and imprisoned in secret by the deep state, culminating in petitions for his release and a march on Downing Street.
On the day itself, I attempted a post aimed at shining a little light on what might have happened (having no knowledge of the proceedings myself), but having been alerted by a reporter to the terms of the reporting restrictions, took the post down out of an abundance of caution. Now, however, with the restrictions relaxed we can try to restore a little order.
The full judgment is still awaited (expected imminently). For now let’s take this story in pieces based on what we know. I shall update the blogpost regularly as further information arrives.
1. Why was Tommy Robinson arrested?
Robinson was arrested outside Leeds Crown Court having video recorded a number of men – including defendants involved in a live trial – entering the court building, and livestreaming the footage on Facebook in what he claimed was an attempt at legitimate court reporting. West Yorkshire police, having been alerted to his activities, arrested Lennon at the scene. The initial reports suggested that he was arrested for a suspected breach of the peace, but what is now clear from the facts published today is that his actions in broadcasting details about the trial were in breach of reporting restrictions.
2. What are reporting restrictions?
The starting point of our criminal justice system is that justice must be seen to be done. However the law provides for exceptions to open justice, known generally as “reporting restrictions”. Reporting restrictions apply in a wide range of situations – from automatic restrictions preventing the identification of a complainant in a sexual allegation, to restrictions preventing reporting of Youth Court proceedings, to discretionary restrictions protecting the identity of child witnesses in the adult courts. Further details, if you are interested, can be found here.
One breed of restriction order is something called a “postponement order”, under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Postponement orders are not unusual, particularly where there are a series of linked trials – for example, where allegations of drug networks involving 30 defendants are concerned, there will be several trials (it not being physically possible to accommodate 30 defendants in a single courtroom). To avoid jurors having their deliberations contaminated by what they might read or hear about the earlier linked trials, reporting of all of them is often postponed until the end. Where there is a separate-but-related issue, such as a contempt of court involving a third party, this can also be the subject of a section 4(2) order. The test is:
- Would a fair, accurate and contemporaneous report of the proceedings (or part thereof) published in good faith create a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice in those or other proceedings?
- Is an order postponing the publication of such reports necessary and are its terms proportionate? Would such an order eliminate the risk of prejudice to the administration of justice? Could less restrictive measures achieve the objective?
- On the specific facts of this case, does the public interest in protecting the administration of justice outweigh the strong public interest in open justice?
This is what we had here. The judge had imposed a postponement order preventing the media from reporting on the ongoing trial until all linked trials had concluded.
Breaching a reporting restriction amounts to a contempt of court. Which is what Yaxley-Lennon admitted doing.
3. But I heard Tommy Robinson was arrested for a breach of the peace. What is a breach of the peace? How is a breach of the peace caused by someone simply filming?
Police officers have common law powers (i.e. powers not set out in statute) to arrest somebody where a breach of the peace is committed or where the officer reasonably believes it will be committed in the immediate future. As to what constitutes a breach of the peace, it is defined in case law as follows: “there is a breach of the peace whenever harm is actually done or is likely to be done to a person or in his presence to his property or a person is in fear of being so harmed through an assault, an affray, a riot, unlawful assembly or other disturbance.” (R v Howell  Q.B. 416) As we can see, it’s a fairly broad definition.
The courts have confirmed that it covers situations where, for example, there are reasonable grounds to fear that a demonstrator or protestor is likely to incite violence, even violence against themselves. This appears to be applicable to the present case. Robinson provocatively filming defendants and streaming on Facebook for the edification of his cult, is the kind of thing which could, it might be argued, lead to a breach of the peace.
Once a person has been arrested for breaching the peace, the police have the power to detain that person where there is a real apprehension that if released they will renew the breach of the peace within a short time, and where the police believe that further detention is necessary to prevent this. Given Robinson’s history of interfering with criminal trials and his defiance towards court orders, one can see why the police may have genuinely feared that he would have simply returned to court if not detained. The power of detention is time-limited – the detainee must be released within 24 hours (if not charged), or for serious (indictable) offences, detention may be authorised up to 96 hours.
It is perfectly common for a person to be arrested on suspicion of one offence, and then ultimately charged or dealt with for another. In this case, it appears that Yaxley-Lennon was arrested and detained for causing or threatening a breach of the peace, and that the court, upon being made aware of his activities, directed that he be brought to court to be dealt with for contempt of court. Even if his original arrest and detention had been unlawful (and there is nothing at all to suggest that it was), this would have absolutely no bearing on the contempt proceedings. The “breach of the peace” angle is a red herring.
5. So back up a step – what exactly is contempt of court?
Contempt of court is a broad, catch-all term for various offences against the administration of justice. The law(s) of contempt are designed to safeguard the fairness of legal proceedings and to maintain the authority and dignity of the court. Some contempts are set out in statute, including the aptly-named Contempt of Court Act 1981. This sets out what is referred to as “strict liability contempt” – the rule that it is a contempt to publish any matter which creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to the course of justice in legal proceedings, irrespective of the intention behind the publication. There is a defence available to publishers (which includes newspapers, TV and social media users) who can show they were providing “a fair and accurate report of legal proceedings held in public, published contemporaneously and in good faith”, thus giving some latitude to the press and ensuring that the media do not shy away from accurate, factual reporting of criminal proceedings.
Other contempts are more eclectic, such as the prohibition on taking photographs or moving images inside a court building (or even drawing a picture – court sketch artists have to draw outside the court from memory – section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925).
There is also a common law offence of “criminal contempt”, which is defined by the courts as “conduct that denotes wilful defiance of, or disrespect towards the court, or that wilfully challenges or affronts the authority of the court or the supremacy of the law itself.” This might include refusing to answer questions in court, physically disrupting court proceedings, interfering with witnesses or jurors (where not charged as a distinct offence of witness intimidation or perverting the course of justice) or defying a judge’s order.
Which brings us back to Mr Yaxley-Lennon, and a sunny day in May last year at Canterbury Crown Court.
6. What happened at Canterbury Crown Court?
On 8 May 2017, during the course of a rape trial at Canterbury Crown Court involving four (Asian) defendants, Yaxley-Lennon attended court and attempted to film the defendants for an online broadcast entitled “Tommy Robinson in Canterbury exposing Muslim child rapists”. He was thwarted by the judge making arrangements for the defendants and jurors to leave court through alternative routes, and so settled for filming himself on camera, both on the court steps and inside the court building, preaching to his online followers about “Muslim paedophiles”. He was interrupted and told by court staff that recording was prohibited (section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, as we’ve discussed above), but continued to record, insisting that he had been told by a different court that he was entitled to film the defendants (notwithstanding that court buildings are plastered with signs reminding people not to do this). His video diatribe – in which he said that “the paedophiles are hiding”, that the police had asked him not to “expose” them as paedophiles (presumably on the basis that they were, at that time, defendants in a live trial) but that “we will”, and that he would be “going round to their house” to catch the defendants on camera – thus continued. The judge hearing the rape trial was made aware, and he was brought before court to be dealt with for contempt of court.
The judge, HHJ Norton, dealt with Yaxley-Lennon on 22 May 2017. She found that he was in contempt by having filmed inside the court building, contrary to section 41, but was also in common law contempt by having continued to film having been told to stop by the court staff. The judge considered the content of his broadcast, and the real risk of his actions derailing the trial, and committed him to prison for 3 months, suspended for a period of 18 months. In practical terms, a suspended sentence means that the prison sentence (3 months) hangs over you for the operational period (18 months). If you remain offence-free and comply with any requirements the court makes, you will never have to serve your sentence. If you reoffend, the presumption in law is that you will serve that prison sentence, additional to whatever sentence you receive for the new offence.
7. So what you’re saying is that Tommy Robinson was given a suspended sentence simply for trying to report on a case? Free speech is truly dead.
No, ye of little brain. He was found to be in contempt of court and given a suspended sentence because his actions put a serious criminal trial in jeopardy. Running around a court building shouting “paedophile” at defendants during a live trial, or live-streaming defendants and members of the public – potentially including jurors – entering and exiting a court building against a tub thumping narration of “Muslim paedophile gangs”, is hardly conducive to ensuring a fair trial. And if there can’t be a fair trial, nobody gets justice. Not the accused, not the complainants, not the public. This is not theoretical – serious criminal trials have nearly collapsed because of the actions of people like Yaxley-Lennon.
We have a quaint tradition in England and Wales that trial by media should be avoided, and that trial on evidence heard in court is the fairest way to determine a person’s guilt. Therefore while criminal courts are open to the public, and it is absolutely fine to report soberly and accurately about ongoing criminal trials, anything which might prejudice or intimidate the jury is strictly forbidden. And this makes sense. It would be a nonsense, for example, to have strict laws preventing individuals from walking up to a juror to say, “The defendant you are trying is plainly a dirty paedophile”, but to allow broadcasters or tabloid columnists to trumpet that message to jurors through the media. Self-defined “free-speech advocates” – particularly a number on the other side of the Atlantic – have difficulty understanding this, so it’s worth pasting in full what HHJ Norton said:
“This contempt hearing is not about free speech. This is not about freedom of the press. This is not about legitimate journalism; this is not about political correctness; this is not about whether one political viewpoint is right or another. It is about justice, and it is about ensuring that a trial can be carried out justly and fairly. It is about ensuring that a jury are not in any way inhibited from carrying out their important function. It is about being innocent until proven guilty. It is not about people prejudging a situation and going round to that court and publishing material, whether in print or online, referring to defendants as “Muslim paedophile rapists”. A legitimate journalist would not be able to do that and under the strict liability rule there would be no defence to publication in those terms. It is pejorative language which prejudges the case, and it is language and reporting – if reporting indeed is what it is – that could have had the effect of substantially derailing the trial. As I have already indicated, because of what I knew was going on I had to take avoiding action to make sure that the integrity of this trial was preserved, that justice was preserved and that the trial could continue to completion without people being intimidated into reaching conclusions about it, or into being affected by “irresponsible and inaccurate reporting”. If something of the nature of that which you put out on social media had been put into the mainstream press I would have been faced with applications from the defence advocates concerned, I have no doubt, to either say something specific to the jury, or worse, to abandon the trial and to start again. That is the kind of thing that actions such as these can and do have, and that is why you have been dealt with in the way in which you have and why I am dealing with this case with the seriousness which I am.”
8. How is all that relevant to what took place on 25 May 2018?
It is relevant because, when passing the suspended sentence, HHJ Norton gave some fairly clear warnings to Yaxley-Lennon:
“[Y]ou should be under no illusions that if you commit any further offence of any kind, and that would include, I would have thought, a further contempt of court by similar actions, then that sentence of three months would be activated, and that would be on top of anything else that you were given by any other court.
In short, Mr Yaxley-Lennon, turn up at another court, refer to people as “Muslim paedophiles, Muslim rapists” and so and so forth while trials are ongoing and before there has been a finding by a jury that that is what they are, and you will find yourself inside. Do you understand?”
And what did Yaxley-Lennon go and do?
9. What did he go and do?
As we know now, he went and committed a contempt of court by reporting on court proceedings. He did so in a way that expressed his “views” on the guilt or otherwise of the defendants, creating a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the proceedings by jurors seeing or becoming aware of his ill-informed ramblings. If this wasn’t enough, he was also in breach of reporting restrictions which he accepted he knew about. He was therefore, it seems, in contempt twice over. This could have led to an application by the defence advocates to discharge the jury and start afresh, potentially meaning vulnerable complainants having to go through the trauma of a trial all over again, or even an application to “stay” (bring to an end) the proceedings altogether.
Importantly, Yaxley-Lennon admitted that he was in contempt of court.
And he was committed to prison for 10 months, with the suspended sentence of 3 months activated and directed to run consecutively. Exactly as he’d been warned.
10. He was tried in secret on the day he was arrested, with no lawyers and the media were banned from reporting what had happened. This is Kafka on steroids, surely?
Contempt proceedings do not attract a jury trial. The procedure for a court dealing with a criminal contempt is set out in the Criminal Procedure Rules. These allow for a “summary procedure”, where the court, having made its own enquiries and offered a contemnor (for that is the official term) the chance to seek legal advice, can deal with the offender straight away. The Crown Court can commit a contemnor to prison for up to two years. There is nothing unusual in him being dealt with on the day of the contempt. Courts are required to deal with contempts as swiftly as possible. There is no suggestion of any prejudice; Yaxley-Lennon was legally represented by an experienced barrister and would have received full legal advice.
He also wasn’t tried in secret; his contempt hearing was heard in public, with members of the press present. However, the judge imposed temporary reporting restrictions (under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 again), postponing reporting of the details of Lennon’s contempt until the trial, and the subsequent related trial, had concluded. This, you may think, is for obvious reasons. A media circus and orchestrated attempt at martyrdom by Lennon and his followers – as was indeed attempted when the restrictions were defied by far-right blogs and foreign news outlets – would present exactly the sort of distraction that threatened to disrupt the very serious criminal proceedings that the judge was desperately seeking to keep on the rails.
In the event, the repeated breaches of the order by foreign news outlets and social media users meant that the judge’s intentions were thwarted. An application to discharge the reporting restriction was made on 29 May 2018 and the judge agreed that, in light of what had happened over the Bank Holiday weekend, restrictions should be lifted to allow publication of the facts.
It is also worth noting that there is a Practice Direction dealing with situations where defendants are imprisoned for contempt of court. This requires that full judgments be published online and handed to the media where a person is committed to prison for contempt. As we can expect imminently.
As for the suggestion (by UKIP among others) that nobody has ever before been found in contempt of court and a postponement order made preventing the media from immediately reporting it, a handy example can be found on 22 May 2017, where one Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was found to be in contempt at Canterbury, and a postponement order was made restricting publication until the end of the substantive trial.
In light of the (frankly ingenious) conspiracy theories that are now doing the rounds after the rather mundane truth above was revealed, some bonus Q&As are required:
11. I heard that Tommy Robinson was denied his own lawyer, and had to have a duty lawyer who was in fact a PROSECUTION lawyer and who didn’t properly defend him.
The barrister previously instructed by Yaxley-Lennon has confirmed that she was not present at court for these proceedings. She is understandably declining to comment further unless or until authorised to do so. But in any case, Yaxley-Lennon was defended by an experienced member of the independent criminal Bar. He may have been offered the duty solicitor at the police station if his chosen solicitor was not available, but in the Crown Court hearing he was advised and represented by a specialist criminal barrister with over 16 years of experience of cases including murder, people-trafficking, serious violence and serious sexual offences. As an independent barrister, this professional prosecutes as well as defends (most of us do), but his website profile in fact emphasises his experience as a defence advocate. In other words, Yaxley-Lennon had a top-notch defence barrister fighting his corner.
12. No trial has ever taken place on the same day as a suspect’s arrest, oh FAKE LAWYER. This was special treatment dished out to a man who is a thorn in the side of the establishment. What do you say about that?
If we were talking about jury trials, I’d agree with you. But Yaxley-Lennon was not “tried”. The contempt proceedings were held on the same day, as is entirely standard (see details of the summary procedure for contempt above), and he admitted that he was in contempt of court. There is no special treatment here whatsoever. Anyone, infamous far-right totem or otherwise, would have been subject to the exact same process for contempt in breaching a reporting restriction. Not everyone would have been sent straight to prison; but then not everyone has a suspended sentence hanging over them for a near-identical offence.
13. I’ve seen a photo of the judge who sentenced Tommy watching his arrest from inside the court building. This judge was biased.
Even supposing the photograph shows what it is said to show, this is entirely irrelevant. If, as has happened in one of my cases, a member of the public starts shouting out at a judge mid-proceedings, the judge may direct the arrest of that person, and deal with them immediately for the contempt. Witnessing the arrest of an individual does not preclude a judge from dealing with that individual in these circumstances. This is, again, a complaint devoid of argument.
14. But the BBC reported on the same trial that Tommy did, and they’re not in prison. Why not?
Because any BBC reports, which as far as I have seen relate entirely to the outset of proceedings before the judge made the reporting restriction, were not in contempt of court. They were fair and accurate, rather than propagandist rants seeking to disseminate information that a judge had specifically ordered should not be in the public domain (such as details of charges against the defendants that had been dropped), and were not in breach of reporting restrictions.
15. Do you have to be so snarky in your lawsplaining? Aren’t you just turning off people who you need to convince?
This is a fair question. Ordinarily, I do my best in these posts to embrace rather than alienate in an effort to explain or persuade. But cases like this, involving co-ordinated transnational campaigns disseminating blatant falsehoods about our legal system and gaslighting the public are, I feel, different. And call for a different approach. As I see it, there are two types of people currently propagating the Free Tommy Robinson myths: far-right sympathisers deliberately sowing discord and falsehoods, whose concern for due process is a cipher for hero-worship; and good people confused and worried about what they’ve heard about the “threat to free speech” posed by the overbearing English and Welsh justice system. The first category are never going to be swayed by facts or rational argument. That is plain from their every interaction on social media, and their every appearance on Fox News. Their motives are clear, their integrity irretrievable and they are not only beyond reach but, frankly, not worth the effort. The second group will, I hope, realise from this explanation that the toga party they have wandered into is in fact a Klan meeting, and will understand the urgency and frustration that underpins the argument.
However the reality is that most people out in the world are probably paying little attention to the ballad of St Tommy, but may form partial views based on what snippets they read and hear. I want this – the truth – to be that snippet. If the key to turning up the online volume is a snappy tone and uncompromising beatdown of idiots and liars, then that’s the game I’ll play.