Publishing the result of a case based on a draft judgment could be contempt of court
It’s a colossal legal story today: Shamima Begum, the so-called “ISIS bride”, this morning won the right to travel from a Syrian prison camp to the UK to try to win back her British citizenship.
But one outlet had the story last night — even before the judgment in Begum’s favour was released. The Sun had the amazing scoop that Begum was “set to win a bombshell legal ruling”, publishing it online at around 10pm last night.
An apparent copy of the article cites “senior government sources” saying that they expected Begum to win in the Court of Appeal when it handed down its judgment the following morning. It also gives a flavour of the court’s reasoning, according to the purported copy.
The piece was swiftly deleted, with the url including the term “legal removal“.
That’s because revealing the result of a court case in advance can be contempt of court.
How would someone know the result for sure? Judges don’t leak, but their draft judgments are routinely sent to the lawyers involved a week or so before official publication. This is basically for proof reading and to iron out any other non-legal errors in the text.
Since deleted. One explanation for the early story is that one of the teams of lawyers leaked the embargoed judgment to the Sun. https://t.co/VtcRPFE3s8
— Colin Yeo (@ColinYeo1) July 16, 2020
Practice Direction 40E of the Civil Procedure Rules says that “a copy of the draft judgment may be supplied, in confidence, to the parties” — provided that they don’t publish it or tell anyone else.
Lawyers and their clients are given strict warnings not to let on that they already know how the court is going to rule.
Leading media law specialist Christina Michalos QC told Legal Cheek that:
“The precise wording of this warning and who can be told can vary from case to case. I’ve been involved in sensitive and high profile cases where it has been stated that the draft is just to be disclosed to the legal representatives and the parties can only be told of the outcome very shortly before the hand down — a matter of an hour or so.”
As a legal journalist, you sometimes get press releases saying that there’s a big decision coming out the next day. The firm or organisation doesn’t say “we won”, but the fact that they want you to look out for the decision is a pretty big hint.
But going so far as to tell journalists the outcome in advance is dangerous. “Breach of a court direction to keep a judgment confidential is clearly in contempt of court,” Michalos warns.
The 5RB silk added:
“Individual liability in any given situation would turn on exactly what the court direction was but in general terms, anyone revealing the outcome of a court case before the judgment is officially handed down is, in most cases, going to have some explaining to do.”
The Civil Procedure Rules also say that breaching the confidentiality of an advance judgment “may be treated as contempt of court”.