In the Media

Open justice victory in terrorism case – lawyers' update

PUBLISHED February 14, 2007

The case of the first Islamic terrorist to be sentenced in the UK for a plot to commit mass murder of civilians, has resulted in an important victory for open justice.

After Dhiran Barot pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder, Mr Justice Butterfield imposed a reporting restriction under S.4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, by which reports of Barot's sentence hearing could not be published until the end of the trial of his six co-defendants.

But following an appeal by media organisations, the Court of Appeal revoked the S.4(2) order, giving a resounding endorsement of the media's professionalism and jurors' independence.

The alleged plot involved a radioactive dirty bomb and a plan to blow up limousines filled with gas canisters and explosives in underground car parks in London.

Butterfield J was concerned that media reports of Barot's sentencing, and his own judicial remarks, could create a huge amount of long-lived, legitimate public debate which might be revived from time to time, prejudicing the forthcoming trial which is due to start in April.

However, giving the Appeal Court's ruling, Sir Igor Judge, president of the Queen's Bench Division, emphasised the "precious principle" of open and transparent criminal justice.

He said: "The freedom of the press to report the proceedings provides one of the essential safeguards against closed justice?In our view, broadcasting authorities and newspaper editors should be trusted to fulfil their responsibilities accurately to inform the public of court proceedings and to exercise sensible judgement about the publication of comment which may interfere with the administration of justice".

It was an important consideration, he said, that Barot's conviction would be admissible at the forthcoming trial and that the jury would be told details of his activities.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged the "primacy" of a fair trial ? every defendant's ?"birthright" ? but said jurors would focus on trial evidence, not media reports. The trial judge would give directions about what to ignore and what to consider.

"We cannot too strongly emphasise that the jury will follow [the directions]," said Sir Igor Judge, "not only because they will loyally abide by the directions of law which they will be given by the judge, but also because the directions themselves will appeal directly to their own instinctive and fundamental belief in the need for the trial process to be fair."

So, the message is clear. Where a jury hears sensational material from a co-defendant's case which has already ended, judges should trust journalists and jurors to avoid prejudice to the administration of justice, rather than restricting open justice with precautionary gagging orders.