Today the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) heard the appeal of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson).
Judgment was reserved, meaning the Court’s decision will not be known for another couple of weeks. However it is worth, given the events of today, having a quick look at what happened. In doing so, I am grateful to the excellent Lizzie Dearden of the Independent who provided a comprehensive live-blog of the hearing from the Royal Courts of Justice, as well as the indispensable Matthew Scott who live-tweeted the hearing, and whose blogpost on the subject tells you everything you could ever need to know.
Some of the background was set out in my first blog after Yaxley-Lennon was committed to prison for contempt at Leeds Crown Court on 25 May 2018. The full facts were, and to an extent are still, unknown. The judgment will, when it is handed down, hopefully fill the gaps, but in a nutshell it was reported that Yaxley-Lennon had committed contempt of court twice over.
The first contempt of court occurred at Canterbury Crown Court last year, when, in the course of a trial, Yaxley-Lennon engaged in the following behaviour.
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,), 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.
It was held that this behaviour was capable of prejudicing the ongoing trial. The finding of the judge, from the judgment, was that in acting in this way, Yaxley-Lennon had committed a “criminal contempt” – what is otherwise known as a contempt “in the face of the court”. He was also in contempt by virtue of filming in breach of section 41.
Contempt – however committed – carries a maximum penalty of committal to prison for up to two years. Note that slightly tortured phrasing – “committal to prison”, rather than “sentenced to imprisonment”. It’s a distinction which becomes relevant at the appeal.
So that is the first contempt. Yaxley-Lennon was committed to prison for 3 months, but this was suspended for a period of 18 months. What this meant, as he was told, was as follows:
“[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?”
Fast-forward to this year. On 25 May 2018, Yaxley-Lennon attended Leeds Crown Court to “report” on an ongoing trial. [The subject of this trial is still subject to reporting restrictions and so is not mentioned here. I will update when the restriction is lifted.] He live-streamed a Facebook video in which he made various comments about the defendants, including reading out their names. This was at a time when reporting restrictions were in place – a type of restriction called a “postponement order” under s.4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 – which prohibited any reporting on the details of the trial until a later date. That later date would have been the conclusion of a “linked trial” – it is normal in Engand and Wales that, where there are multiple defendants to be tried in a big criminal case, and there are too many defendants for all to be tried at the same trial, there is instead a series of individual, linked trials. In order to ensure that anything said or done in the first trial does not risk prejudicing a potential jury for a later trial, the court will often impose a “postponement order”. The full details of everything can then be reported freely at the conclusion of all of the proceedings.
If you breach a reporting restriction, you are in contempt of court. This is irrespective of your intent or motive.
And this is where Yaxley-Lennon found himself. Arrested by police (initially for a breach of the peace, but then dealt with in court for contempt – this is entirely unremarkable, despite the attention given to it by Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters) and brought before the judge facing an allegation of contempt. Contempt having been admitted, Yaxley-Lennon’s barrister advanced mitigation, and HHJ Marson committed YL to prison for a total of 13 months. 10 months was for the new offence, with the three-month suspended sentence activated and ordered to run consecutively.
He appealed, and here we are.
The grounds of appeal
A number of issues were raised by Yaxley-Lennon’s barrister, Jeremy Dein QC.
The first – and most surprising to those of us who had relied on Yaxley-Lennon’s spokesperson’s claim that he was only appealing the length of the terms of imprisonment – was the announcement at the outset of the hearing that the appellant was seeking to appeal against the finding of contempt, not only at Leeds Crown Court, but also the finding of contempt at Canterbury Crown Court last year.
Appeals have to be lodged within 28 days of the finding of contempt, so the first hurdle to clear is an application for an extension of time. Jeremy Dein QC submitted that there had been a delay in Yaxley-Lennon receiving legal advice due to difficulties experienced by his legal representatives in visiting him in prison. In relation to the Canterbury case, Mr Dein submitted that Y-L had not been aware of any legal flaw in procedure until he had received this most recent legal advice. The appeal against the contempt itself, as opposed to just the “sentence”, was therefore lodged late in the day. (There was an earlier report that the initial date for the appeal had been vacated. It may well be that the late lodging of these grounds, and the significant change in the way in which the appeal was framed, was the reason).
The arguments against both contempts centred around alleged “procedural deficiencies”. That is to say, there was not any argument that Y-L had not acted in a way that would amount to contempt; rather it was said that the way in which the courts had dealt with it meant that the contempts should not stand as a matter of law.
Leeds Crown Court
It was argued that HHJ Marson was wrong to proceed to deal with the contempt “summarily” – i.e. by hearing it himself on the day that the contempt was committed. It was said that Y-L was prejudiced by the speed with which the case was dealt with.
The Criminal Procedure Rules allow for a judge to deal with contempt summarily. There is an initial procedure that the court should follow (CrimPR 48.5(2)), which requires the court to do the following:
If, having completed the initial procedure (which includes offering the contemnor a chance to apologise), the judge decides that further action is to be taken, the court must embark upon an “enquiry” (the name for the hearing of a criminal contempt). A court can postpone an enquiry for further investigation. It is commonplace for contempt to be dealt with swiftly and summarily, but it was argued that in this case it resulted in prejudice to the appellant.
The reason for this, it was said, is that although Y-L’s barrister at the hearing accepted the contempt on Y-L’s behalf and apologised for it, Y-L was not directly asked whether he admitted the conduct, and was not given the opportunity to apologise (required by CrimPR 48.5(2)(b)). This, it was said, amounted to a serious procedural defect. The court should have made clearer how it defined the contempt, and should have ascertained exactly what Y-L did and did not accept. It was accepted that the procedural error made no difference to whether Y-L was in contempt, but was said that it was so serious that the contempt should be quashed.
Canterbury Crown Court
It was submitted that it was unclear under which law – i.e. which species of contempt – Y-L was found to be in contempt and sentenced at Canterbury. As set out in my previous blog, Y-L appeared to be in contempt in two ways – a breach of the statutory prohibition on filming inside court buildings under s.41 of the Contempt of Court Act 1925, and a contempt “in the face of the court”.
There was also a suggestion that the fact that HHJ Norton in Canterbury had expressed Y-L’s sentence as “3 months’ imprisonment”, rather than “a committal of 3 months”, was an error of law. [This is correct; however it is far from unusual. Often judges will conflate terms such as “imprisonment” and “detention” (the latter applies to offenders under 21), but it makes no practical difference, and is corrected by the Court of Appeal as a technicality.]
Length of committal
As for the length of the committal, the following submissions were advanced:
- Y-L was not acting with “impertinent defiance”, and had in fact asked a police officer outside Leeds Crown Court if his actions were in contempt of court;
- Because certain matters had been reported earlier in the press (before the imposition of reporting restrictions), Y-L believed that they were already in the public domain;
- He did not intend to breach the reporting restriction, albeit he was aware of it;
- Due to the limited time that Y-L spent with his barrister on 25 May, important matters of mitigation were not before the court, such as the fact that Y-L said he had undertaken media training;
- The court was also not made aware of the impact of prison upon Y-L when he was sentenced in 2013, which had left him unable to sleep, nauseas and anxious;
- That in passing sentence the judge attached improper weight to things said by Y-L said on the Facebook livestream which were not of themselves contemptuous.
It was submitted that, everything considered, 10 months was too high a starting point for the Leeds contempt, and furthermore that it was “unfair” that the 3-month suspended sentence was activated.
The Attorney General appointed counsel, Louis Mably QC, to act as “amicus” (“friend to the court”). Contempts are generally not a matter for the prosecution (being “offences” committed against and enforced by the court), but where there are questions of law with which the Court of Appeal may wish for assistance. Given the technical argument over the effect of the alleged breach of the Criminal Procedure Rules, the appointment of an amicus appears sensible.
Mr Mably argued that a breach of the Criminal Procedure Rules does not of itself invalidate a finding of contempt, particularly where it is accepted that it had no bearing on the outcome of the case. He said that, regarding the Leeds matter, an adjournment would not have made a practical difference to the outcome – while doing so might have allowed the court to more properly articulate the nature of the contempt, Y-L would still (as he accepted through Mr Dein) have been in contempt of court. However, importantly, Mr Mably did accept that not adjourning could have affected the sentence imposed.
Jeremy Dein QC played a canny game by emphasising the Criminal Procedure Rules, compliance with which, as he reminded the Court, is considered of utmost importance by Sir Brian Leveson, the President of the Queen’s Bench Division. The Court must decide to what extent a failure to follow the Rules (if indeed such a failure is made out) impacts the validity of a finding of contempt. In general, the Court of Appeal nowadays does not have much time for technical arguments, and as both prosecution and defence appeared to accept that there would not have been a difference to the findings, this ground of appeal may not hold much sway.
Hostage-to-fortune time, what would my best prediction be? Emphasising that we still do not know the full facts – transcripts of what happened at Leeds Crown Court, for example, were before the Court of Appeal and will be vital in establishing the key issues (e.g. whether the contempt was put to Y-L; what procedure was followed; what was said in mitigation), and the parties referred to written submissions that have not yet been made public – my guess is that the Court will not agree that the contempts are invalid, but may well find that relevant matters of mitigation were not taken into account, and so reduce the sentence by a few months.