The Spectator and the jury

A clear breach of the law does not mean that the law was right to begin with.

Rod Liddle was an idiot to seek to publish an article which anyone with the slightest  knowledge of media law would tell you risked a prosecution for contempt.   Whoever at the Spectator took the decision to publish the article was an even greater idiot.  For, as Brian Cathcart rightly points out, the publication posed a genuine threat to a trial which Stephen Lawrence’s family and many others had worked so hard to achieve.  In the end the Spectator was prosecuted for a breach of a specific court order rather than under the general law of contempt; but either sanction would have applied in this situation.


I am afraid there is a but, for as stupid as the Spectator and Liddle were in publishing the article, it does not make the general law of contempt - which polices publicity in criminal proceedings - correct.  A trial is a matter of public importance; and so in a free society, journalists and the public should be able to discuss the case in court in open and robust terms.  An exception to this should be when such exercises of free speech undermine that other great liberal value of a right to a fair trial.

And here lies a significant problem.  For whilst judges and lay magistrates can, it seems, be trusted to block out adverse publicity when there is a case before them to adjudicate, such respect is not accorded to juries.  Indeed, the law of England and Wales is extremely paternalistic in respect of juries, and often jurors themselves will be punished for seeking further information on the trials on which they have to decide.  Some may say that such protection is unrealistic and ask if the worldliness of jurors is not wanted then why do we have juries in the first place.  On the other hand, however, any defendant should be allowed to answer only the case put against them in court.  It would be wrong for a defendant’s fate to be based on something on which they have not had an opportunity to make a case (and this applies to justices of the Supreme Court in the Julian Assange appeal as much as any hapless juror caught surfing the internet).

Furthermore, the general  law of contempt serves a useful service in regulating the conduct of the press when someone is arrested or charged.  It is not perfect, as the examples of Christopher Jefferies and Robert Murat demonstrate; but it is likely that such prejudicial coverage would be worse if there was no enforcement of contempt law at all.  If we lost the law of contempt generally then the monsterings of suspects would face no real check.

But the paternalistic attitude towards jurors is also creating artificial situations.  The last decade or so has seen it possible for anyone to publish on the internet.  It has also made it possible for jurors to research at ease, regardless of their clear duties to the court.   It is not enough for the law to pretend this will not happen, even if it continues to punish severely those jurors who transgress.

How the competing rights to free expression and to a fair trial should balance is a difficult, if not impossible, question to answer satisfactorily.  Neither liberal principle will always trump the other.  The courts therefore need to find a sensible approach which accords with the habits and expectations of the citizens who will serve as jurors, and those who will discuss live cases using social media.

Just because Liddle and the Spectator should have known better on this occasion, it does not make the general law relating to discussing and reporting cases in the news appropriate in all circumstances.  Justice and free speech are two pillars supporting a free society, and we need to soon work out a way that they do not readily collide.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

The Spectator magazine, of which Rod Liddle is an associate editor and columnist.

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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.