Contempt of Court Act 1981

What is the Contempt of Court Act 1981?

After the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in Sunday Times v UK (1979) that English contempt law breached Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention), the UK Parliament enacted the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (CCA 1981). The primary function of CCA 1981 is to protect the integrity of active court proceedings. It prohibits the media from publishing information that will prejudice ongoing legal cases and in particular trials before juries.

A strict liability rule is introduced by CCA 1981. Under this, any conduct that interferes with the course of justice can be treated as contempt of court, even when there is no intention to interfere. This rule applies only to publications, ie, any form of communication addressed to any section of the public or the public at large.

The main provisions of CCA 1981 are to:

  • limit liability for contempt under the ‘strict liability rule’ (ss 1- 7);
  • prohibit the use of recording devices in court without leave of the court and makes publication of a sound recording a contempt of court (s 9);
  • provide limited protection against contempt for a person refusing to disclose the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible (s 10);
  • allow magistrates’ courts to deal with contempt in the face of the court by imposition of a fine of £2500 or committal to custody for a maximum of one month or both (s 12);
  • restrict the period of committal to prison for contempt where there is no express limitation to two years for a superior court and one month for an inferior court (s 14).

Application of CCA 1981

CCA 1981 only applies where:

  • a publication carries a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing justice in the proceedings; and
  • proceedings are active.

Criminal proceedings are generally active from the point of arrest without a warrant, issue of a warrant for arrest or of a summons, service of an indictment, or oral charge, whichever happens first.

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For more information on:

  • Anonymity under CCA 1981