Images purporting to show photographs of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson (who killed Jamie Bulger when they were ten years old) as they are today have been circulating on the internet for a while.
The issue with this is that both boys were given new identities on their release from prison and there is a worldwide injunction prohibiting publishing anything that might reveal their new identity.
On 14th February 2013 James Baines tweeted an image that claimed to be a photograph of Mr Venables as he appears now. On 27th November, he admitted being in contempt of court by doing so.
Mr Baines was sentenced to 14 months in prison, suspended (probably for a year) as well as being ordered to pay £3,000 in costs.
There are no sentencing guidelines for Contempt, but the Courts take it very seriously, for obvious reasons (the CPS have some guidance here). A custodial sentence is pretty much inevitable.
I was (pleasantly) surprised that the sentence was suspended. We will have to see what the full sentencing remarks are, but I would imagine that it was his plea of guilty that saved him from being locked up immediately.
We do have the judgment in the case of Neil Harkins and Dean Liddle who posted photographs of Mr Venables and Mr Thompson to Facebook and Twitter respectively on 12th February 2013.
This sets out the following potential aggravating features:
- Potential consequences to Mr Venables and Mr Thompson (and others who may be mistaken for them) were severe
- Knowledge of the injunction (so a deliberate breach)
- Being part of a concerted internet campaign to breach the injunction
There were the following mitigating features:
- Removal of the images when contacted by the authorities
- A prompt apology
In Mr Baines case it seems that all of the aggravating and mitigating features were present (save for evidence of there being a concerted campaign).
Mr Hawkins and Mr Liddle received sentences of 9 months each. However, due to the mitigation available and the fact that they did not fully appreciate the seriousness of what they were doing, these were suspended for 15 months.
The Court finished with the following warning ‘We must however conclude by saying that for the future if there is a similar publication on the internet or through the social media then we consider that there will be little prospect of such a person – if the publication occurs after the date of this judgment – escaping from a substantial custodial sentence without there being any prospect of suspension‘
Mr Baines had, by then, already sent his tweet. If it happens again, whoever is next taken to Court can expect to be leaving in a prison van.
Dominic Grieve has been proactive in enforcing the rules on contempt and we can expect more of this.
The internet is a game changer in most areas of life. It is clear that this judgment is not going to stop people tweeting and sharing whatever they like, but hopefully it will make some think twice before doing so.
I can see that there is an argument that the internet makes the injunction redundant (and should therefore not be enforced) especially as the Courts in England and Wales don’t have jurisdiction abroad. I do think that it’s important that Court orders are obeyed, so I would not support that.
There is a good argument for a full debate as to how Courts should approach the internet, but this must be done via a public discussion rather than individuals taking the law into their own hands.
What about freedom of speech?
Freedom of speech, particularly in relation to court proceedings, has also been a very important feature of British justice. It does have limits and given the real danger that Mr Venables and Mr Thompson would be placed in if their identities were known, this encroachment into the usual rules is clearly justifiable.
Of course, if we were a bit more civilised, and a less blood thirsty society (perhaps more like Norway) then the need for the injunction may be much less…