It is right to review the rules on contempt of court

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s “The World This Weekend” Peter Clarke who was the National Coordinator for Terrorist Investigations until about 18 months ago has suggested that the current rules on contempt of court may hinder counter-terrorist work and certainly make it harder for the public to understand what is going on.  (I am not sure what was gained in public understanding by recording the first part of the interview in the street outside the Old Bailey, but then I’m just a listener, so what do I know … )

Peter Clarke was supported by former Attorney-General, Lord Peter Goldsmith, who said reviewing the legislation would be timely, while recognising the importance of ensuring that those arrested could get a fair trial.

There are real issues at the moment in terms of how public confidence in police actions in addressing terrorism may be maintained, if no public explanation of why a high-profile raid has taken place until all relevant Court proceedings have concluded possibly as much as three or for years later.

This was one of the issues that emerged in the major consultation exercise that I led on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Authority three years ago and which culminated in the publication of  “Counter Terrorism: The London Debate“.

The report concluded:


“It is critically important that the MPS continues

in relation to its counter-terrorist work to find

innovative ways to communicate important

factual information to the public before an

incident, as an incident unfolds, and afterwards.

In the absence of official information, rumour

will always thrive. Maximum safe information

must therefore be communicated by the police

to scotch such rumour, and thereby to limit

misunderstanding. Only in possession of the key

facts can the public make up its own mind in an

informed way as to whether a particular police

action is appropriate and proportionate.

Improved arrangements for the disclosure of

information on counter-terrorism matters by the

police to the public through the press are

urgently required. Current legal constraints

around pre-trial reporting prevent the police

from issuing information at their disposal,

thereby creating an information vacuum, which

is invariably filled by unsubstantiated public

accounts, resulting in damaging scepticism of

counter-terrorism operations within

communities. It is therefore time to revisit the

law on sub judice (matters under trial or being

considered by a judge or court). Whilst the legal

system must protect the rights of all individuals

to a fair trial, the police need to command

public confidence in order to do their difficult

counter-terrorist work, and this is made much

more difficult by restrictions imposed upon their

ability to share information with the public

about that work.”

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