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
The Contempt of Court Act refers to conduct “tending to interfere with the course of justice”, but under s. 2(2) there must be a “substantial risk … [of the proceedings being] seriously impeded or prejudiced”. Based on this, it would appear an rather high bar for someone making a statement about their own case to seriously prejudice it – especially if the same argument will be made in front of the jury?
Are you aware of any cases whereby the defendant has been found guilty of contempt of court for making a public statement about their own case?
On the rest of your post, I entirely agree with your thoughts on identifying the complainants. It seemed to me listening to Nigel Evans’ statement that if I did know him, I may well be aware of the complainant he had “socialised with as recently as last week”… and therefore, would be able to deduce from that who they were.
I find it very interesting indeed that solicitors are advising their clients to make such public statements – e.g. Max Clifford’s (http://news.sky.com/story/1083538/max-clifford-charged-with-11-sex-assaults) where he noted the date of the offences where the police apparently did not release these. I am still amazed at Rebekah and Charlie Brooks’ statement (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18062485), but maybe publicly saying you are the victim of a “witch-hunt” or a “scapegoat” is what passes for good legal advice these days!
Look at the Aggro Santos case – anonymity must be granted to rape trial defendants. Barbara Hewson concurs with me on this (as do many others)
Barbara Hewson is wrong, as are the many others. This was very throughly debated when there was anonymity for defendants between 1976 and 1988.
Look at the Stuart Hall case, victims entirely unconnected with one another would not have come forward if his arrest had not been publicised. Their evidence allowed police and CPS to build up a picture of a pattern of offending, which in historic cases like that, is a very important way of establishing a case.
If an accused is found innocent, surely his reputation should not have been sullied by a fictitious lie to begin with just because he is well known. There was no mention in the media of Jaji until he was convicted, or if there was, it was very low key. Who protects the innocent who are accused?
Who is Jaji?
http://news.sky.com/story/1079870/teenager-convicted-of-raping-11-year-old-girl – Exactly my point!