WAS Nigel Evans flirting with contempt of court by so publicly protesting his innocence on TV at the weekend?
That was the question I was asked after he had appeared before cameras to deny the allegations of rape; talk of his shock that they had been made and thank his constituents and friends for their support.
We have seen this sort of statement often recently, especially by those caught up in Operation Yewtree and other inquiries stemming from the Jimmy Savile scandal (although it must be pointed out Evans’s case is in no way linked to those wider inquiries.) Celebrity emerges from home after being released on bail to make a statement to camera insisting they are not guilty, that they will be proved so in due course and to thank their family, friends and fans for their support
Could such a statement be a problem legally? Well there is no doubt that contempt of court is a risk now. Evan has been arrested, so proceedings are active for the purposes of the contempt of court act. That means that nothing should be published or broadcast now which could cause substantial risk of serious prejudice to any future proceedings.
Will claiming you are not guilty create such a risk? If it is simply an insistence you are not guilty, then no. Thanks expressed for support are also fine. Remember any jury will be told on the first day of trial that the defendant is presumed innocent.
I do think that Stuart Hall’s recent statement, which went beyond proclaiming his own innocence to ask why those making the allegations had not reported them before, skirted the edges of contempt. And I think Mr Evans was unwise to talk about detail of one of his accusers and his recent contact with him.
I don’t believe it cleared what is quite a high bar for a contempt prosecution, even with the current Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s seeming enthusiasm for prosecution.
However, I do think what he said could be an identifying detail about one of the complainants. They get anonymity for life once they make an allegation of rape and that forbids publication of any detail that would identify them as the victim of a sexual offence.
So if anyone, not necessarily everyone, can work out who the victim is from a detail you have published or broadcast, then you are guilty of an offence, and a sexual offence at that. The detail does not have to be obvious things like the complainant’s name or address, just some fact that enables someone, perhaps someone who knows them, to put two and two together and identify them as the victim.
Victims’ anonymity lasts a lifetime and can only be lifted with their consent, that of a judge, or if they are subsequently charged with an offence in relation to the complaint such as perjury or perverting the course of justice. Any decision to prosecute is made by the Crown Prosecution Service in this instance, not the Attorney General.
It is likely we will see more statements like that of Mr Evans, but if such accused do no want to add to their list of legal woes, they need to take care what they say