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Jo Yeates’ landlord: media responsible for ‘extraordinary tissue of fabrications’

November 2nd, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal, Newspapers, Press freedom and ethics

Chris Jefferies, who successfully sued eight newspapers for damages after his release. Image: Tim Ireland/PA

Chris Jefferies, the landlord of Joanna Yeates who was arrested on suspicion of her murder but later released, told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that he was “very disturbed” by the “extraordinary tissue of fabrications” published by the press following his arrest.

Jefferies was appearing on the programme to talk about his work with the Hacked Off campaign to exclude privacy and defamation cases from proposed government reforms to conditional fee agreements (CFAs), otherwise known as “no-win-no-fee” agreements.

After his release Jefferies successfully sued eight newspapers – the Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Star, Daily Express, Daily Record, and the Scotsman – for damages. Two of the titles – the Sun and the Daily Mirror – were also successfully prosecuted by attorney general Dominic Grieve for contempt of court.

Jefferies told the today programme that during his time in custody he had been unaware of his treatment at the hands of the press, which had caused Grieve to issue a warning to all news outlets over possible contempt.

The landlord said that the press had had “a field day” with his reputation and said he had “become a household name for all the wrong reasons”.

Arguing against the proposed CFA reforms, Jefferies claimed that there is “absolutely no question that I would not have been able to take the action I did against the newspapers” if no-win-no-fee agreements were restricted. He went on to say that access to justice would be “undoubtedly denied” to victims of libel or privacy intrusion if reform went ahead.

I think there is absolutely no question that I wouldn’t have been able to take the action that I did because at the moment, one is able to take out a conditional fee agreement and that means that the lawyer’s success fees, which are a percentage of the total legal costs of taking the action, will be paid by the other side and one won’t be responsible for those.

Because these cases can be dragged out over considerable periods of time, particularly if they go to court, then legal fees are astronomic. One couldn’t begin to potentially expose oneself to the risk of having to pay tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds in advance.

Precisely for that reason I felt I had no other course but to take the legitimate action that was recently concluded against the eight newspapers.

Jefferies’ solicitor, Louis Charalambous, said after damages were awarded that the newspapers were paying them “knowing that once the conditional fee agreement rules are changed next year victims of tabloid witch hunts will no longer have the same access to justice.”

Yeates neighbour, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of her murder last week and sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison.

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Brian Cathcart: Sun and Mirror contempt case may make editors think twice

There is good piece by Brian Cathcart on the Index on Censorship site, in which he predicts that Dominic Grieve’s prosecution of the Sun and the Mirror over their coverage of the arrest of Chris Jefferies may make editors think twice about casually flouting contempt of court laws.

The Contempt of Court Act of 1981 prohibits all but the most straightforward reporting in a crime case from the moment “proceedings are active”, in other words once someone is arrested. The idea is to ensure that coverage does not interfere with the course of justice, for instance by prejudicing the eventual jury. But for years, when a big, competitive story came along, many editors and reporters in national media simply ignored the Act and continued to publish often grotesque allegations about a suspect after arrest and even sometimes after they were charged. Think Colin Stagg, Barry George,Karen Matthews and others — and Stagg and George were later shown to be innocent.

That may be about to change thanks to the actions of the attorney-general, Dominic Grieve. Not normally a man to cut the figure of a hero — a lean, bookish type, he was last seen filibustering awkwardly in the Commons when the government was under pressure over its links with the Murdochs — Grieve has done something genuinely brave. He has prosecuted the Daily Mirror and the Sun for contempt of court in the Chris Jefferies case, and he has won.

Read the full article at this link.

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Index: Due process, prejudice and the press in case of Chris Jefferies

The UK media has come in for a fair amount of criticism over the past few days for its coverage of Chris Jefferies, who was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Joanna Yeates but later released without charge.

In a post for Index on Censorship, published yesterday, Kingston University journalism professor Brian Cathcart analyses the deficiencies of England’s contempt of court laws that allow news organisations to go unpunished for what he calls the “monstering” of suspects.

Sometimes, as in the case of Jefferies, the attorney general publicly draws editors’ attention to the Contempt of Court Act of 1981, but it never makes any difference. They know and he knows that that law, supposedly intended to protect juries from improper influence, contains a loophole big enough to render it meaningless.

To convict a paper of contempt in such a case the Crown would have to prove there had been a “substantial” risk of “serious” prejudice. This, successive attorneys general have decided, is both unmeasurable and unprovable, which means it is also unenforceable. It follows that reporting of suspects around the time of arrest is unfettered.

Full post on Index on Censorship at this link.

Related content elsewhere

David Banksy: Molecular chemistry, contempt of court and the reporting of the Joanna Yeates case

Inforrm blog: Media responsibility and Chris Jefferies

Timothy J. Moore: The lost honour of Chris Jefferies

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