Photography and Contempt of Court

The real story of the case of Paul Thompson.

Yesterday it was reported that Paul Thompson was sent to prison for two months, just for taking a photograph in court with his Blackberry.

It was a classic "Bad Law" news story, the sort of piece which will make the reader think that the "law is an ass". Such stories are a journalistic staple; they are easy to write, and the result is invariably outrage at the disproportion of the sanction or the lack of common sense.

Often these stories are true, for the law can indeed be an ass. All those concerned with the application of legal powers and judicial remedies -- from police officers to distinguished judges -- make mistakes or act without proper deliberation and, given the coercive force of law, people's lives can be adversely affected. Similarly those who devise or make laws, such as civil servants and politicians, can end up legislating on a misconceived basis. The law can be brought into disrepute in many ways and by many people, most of whom should know better.

But sometimes the news stories are incorrect. To paraphrase Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science columns at the Guardian, it turns out that things are more complicated than is apparent from news reports. Any news story which prompts the reaction that the "law is an ass" is normally one of two kinds: either the law is actually at fault, or the legal reporting is incomplete or misleading. In other words, a "Bad Law" news story means either bad law, or bad law journalism.

And so we turn to the story of Paul Thompson and his Blackberry. The Times reported (£) that 19-year-old Thompson "was sitting in the public gallery of Luton crown court to watch a friend being sentenced for robbing an off-duty police officer when he took a snap of the courtroom on his Blackberry". This photograph was "in response to a message from a girl asking where he was".

Thompson was spotted, taken to the cells, and then on his return to court was sentenced to two months imprisonment. The Times referred to section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, which prohibits photography in Court. There was also mention that the sanction is up to two years in prison or a fine. A well-known media lawyer was then quoted as saying that the penalty seemed "robust for someone who had committed an inadvertent breach of the law". There was even mention of Thompson's "eight week-old puppy", which had been left "alone in his flat in Luton". The story was reported in similar terms by the BBC, and even the Guardian took the story at face value.

It was seemingly stark that this was a ridiculous over-reaction by the judge. It surely could not be right that a teenager should be imprisoned in such a casual fashion, for such a long period (and which left a puppy to starve).

So what really happened?

What did occur was more complicated than the account set out in the Times and elsewhere. In fact, Thompson had been continually disruptive in Court and had been asked twice by the usher to stop disrupting proceedings. As a spokesperson for the Judicial Office of Communication stated:

Mr Thompson had been disruptive throughout the sentencing hearing. He was warned twice by the court usher to keep quiet in court before being finally asked to leave the court. He had also taken a photograph in court of the victim in the case who had suffered a violent robbery.

Her Honour Judge Mensah dealt with the matter under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and not s.41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 as some media have reported. She considered the totality of Mr Thompson's behaviour in court. In sentencing him she took into account his immediate admission of guilt and made clear the sentence included an element of punishment and deterrent to others.

So, contrary to the news reports, Thompson was not punished just for taking a photograph, and nor was he convicted under the offence specified by the Times (which, in any case carries, only a small fine). He instead was sentenced in respect of the disruption as a whole. The photograph was not just a quick picture of the court to show a friend where he was; it was instead a photograph of the victim of a violent assault. And it was not a casual sanction; there had been warnings, and legal representation was arranged. The photograph taken was examined by the police and the judge before the sentence was handed down. Almost all this information was available to those reporting the story, had they asked for it.

The robbery involved appears to have been horrifying. According to the judge:

[The victim] was ambushed by somebody putting a gun to his head.

He was pulled to the ground and his eyes were covered and he was violently robbed.

The gun may have been imitation but that is of little comfort to the victim who had it poked to his head and I have heard evidence that you laughed after the robbery and childishly adopted gangster-like poses for photographs.

You thought it was funny to rob someone at gun-point, putting them in immense fear.

Both of you are dangerous young men who glory in following dishonest and violent life styles.

One can perhaps see why a camera then being pointed at the victim by Thompson did not go down terribly well with the judge.

All this said, the question remains whether the two-month imprisonment for Thompson was excessive. The Court of Appeal in 2004 (referred to here) held that a twelve month sentence for contempt of court was appropriate when the appellant took three photographs -- of people in the Court canteen, a witness giving evidence, and a defendant and prison officer in the dock. The Court of Appeal said that taking photographs in the courtroom was a growing problem and needed to be taken seriously, especially when the pictures are of those who could face intimidation or reprisals. Accordingly, it was clear "that illegal photography had the potential gravely to prejudice the administration of criminal justice". In appropriate cases, immediate imprisonment was appropriate; in that appeal case, this would be for 12 months, but for others "the clang of the prison gates would be enough". However, in the case of a tourist just snapping a pic in ignorance of the law, a fine would be appropriate.

Nonetheless, two months imprisonment is a long time for any 19-year-old. It may be that there is an appeal. What is certain is that the initial news reports of what happened last week in Luton Crown Court did not really tell the fuller story. Someone was continually disrupting the sentencing in respect of a serious violent offence, and he then took a photograph of the victim. On these facts, it would appear that there was indeed a contempt of court. Thompson was then provided with legal representation before being sentenced. An appeal court may consider whether two months is excessive; which it could well be. But this does not seem a case where it was the law which was an ass.

And, fortunately, the puppy did not starve.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.