Tommy Robinson: What is contempt of court, was his free speech threatened, and has he got previous convictions?

Tommy Robinson: What is contempt of court, was his free speech threatened, and has he committed other crimes?

Listen to Julia Hartley-Brewer discussing the case with lawyer Karen Todner and Ukip leader Gerard Batten

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson has been freed on bail after having contempt of court charges overturned following an appeal.

Ever since his initial arrest and imprisonment in May, his supporters have claimed that the case represented a curtailment of free speech.

He was initially arrested for a breach of the peace, but charged with contempt of court after he filmed people - including defendants - entering Leeds Crown Court during a live trial.

He live-streamed the footage on Facebook to an audience of over 700,000 (his Facebook following has since increased to over 850,000) and some supporters labelled him a champion of free speech and pointed out the mainstream media had not been covering the trial that Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, 35, was attempting to ‘report’ on.

But there was a good reason for that - it was subject to reporting restrictions, and the media was legally forbidden from covering it.

This is what led to Robinson being charged, and subsequently jailed, for contempt of court. He admitted the charges at his trial in May.


What is contempt of court?

Any publication that could pose a "substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced" is contempt of court.

In the Contempt of Court Act 1981, a ‘publication’ is defined as a “speech, writing, programme included in a cable programme service, or other communication in whatever form”.

So you can’t publish - online, on social media, on your own blog, in the national news or otherwise - anything that could potentially affect the trial. For example, jurors could see something written online that may alter their opinion of the defendant, and that wouldn’t be a fair trial.


What can the media say and not say when it comes to criminal trials?

Tommy Robinson supporters clash with police during a protest against his jail time

When a trial is ongoing, the media will generally report on it. Court reporters can write about the proceedings inside the courtroom and what the charges are.

Sometimes, there will be restrictions in place. This might mean that some details - like names, locations, or other identifying information - must be left out to protect the identity of people involved.

Complainants in cases where a sex crime is alleged, for example, are automatically entitled to anonymity. Children are not named to protect them, and sometimes, if the identification of friends or family members could lead to complainants being identified, this is forbidden, too.

If there are several linked trials, where a large group of defendants suspected of the same or similar crimes, taking place, a ban on reporting may be imposed until all trials are complete. This is what happened in the case Robinson was live-streaming about.


Was the media really covering up a trial?

No. The trial Robinson turned up at - which involved grooming - was subject to reporting restrictions, as explained above.

Once a verdict had been reached and the trial ended, the media would likely have reported that the defendants were either sentenced or acquitted. A judgement has still not been reached.


Does Tommy Robinson’s successful appeal point at failings in the UK justice system?

Anti-fascist protesters after Tommy Robinson was released on bail

No, it actually means the UK justice system is working perfectly well, and the appeal judge recognised that Robinson's original trial was "flawed".

The judge said he may have been jailed too hastily, which is why he overturned the conviction.

Some supporters that Robinson wasn’t given a fair trial. Contempt of court cases are not tried with a jury like criminal cases. The judge did, however, say: "We are satisfied the decision at Leeds Crown Court to proceed to committal to prison so promptly and without due regard for Part 48 of the Rules gave rise to unfairness."

The judge also imposed a reporting restriction on Robinson’s contempt trial to try and prevent exactly the kind of media storm his supporters whipped up.


Why did Tommy Robinson win his appeal? Doesn’t that mean he’s innocent?

He had his conviction overturned, which is not the same as being ‘found innocent’.

There’s actually no such thing as being ‘found innocent’ in British law - it’s either guilty, not guilty or not proven.

But he will be retried on the contempt charges.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, who overturned the charges, said: "We are satisfied that the finding of contempt made in Leeds following a fundamentally flawed process, in what we recognise were difficult and unusual circumstances, cannot stand. We will direct that the matter be reheard before a different judge."

He said that some specifics of the charge had not been properly laid out, and that proceedings were commenced too quickly. "no particulars of the contempt were formulated or put to the appellant… [there was] a muddle over the nature of the contempt being considered,” he said.


What are Tommy Robinson’s previous convictions?

In May last year, Robinson committed a similar offence outside a rape trial at Canterbury Crown Court.

He filmed - despite being told not to do so by court staff and there being signs saying filming was prohibited - and expressed his opinions on camera, labelling the defendants “paedophiles” before any verdict had been reached and wrote about “Muslim child rapists” online.

He was handed a three-month suspended sentence for contempt of court on that occasion.

He also has a string of other charges to his name, including: