A complaint from the Times newspaper, fined for contempt of court after publishing comments from a jury foreman, has been dismissed by human rights judges.
In its decision in the case of Seckerson and The Times Newspapers Limited v. the United Kingdom (application nos. 32844/10 and 33510/10) the European Court of
Human Rights has unanimously declared the application inadmissible. The decision is final.
The case concerned the disclosure in newspaper articles, of comments made by one of the jurors in a criminal trial regarding the jury’s deliberations and the UK courts’ finding against the juror and newspaper company.
The applicants are Michael Alexander Seckerson, a British national who was born in 1943 and lives in Maidenhead, and Times Newspapers Limited, a company which owns and publishes The Times newspaper.
Seckerson was the foreman of the jury at the trial of a childminder found guilty for having shaken a baby in her care so violently that the infant died a couple of days later.
The jury reached the guilty verdict by a majority of 10 of the 12 members. In late 2007, following the conviction of the childminder, Seckerson contacted The Times and expressed his grave concerns about the trial and the conviction. The Times published two articles based on Seckerson. In particular, the articles contained the
following two quotes: “…the consensus was taken three minutes after the foreman was voted in. It was 10-2 against, all based on the evidence. After that, there was not going back” and “ultimately the case was decided by laymen and laywomen using that despicable enemy of correct and logical thinking, that wonderfully persuasive device, common sense.”
Following interviews by the police and an application by the Attorney General, the two applicants were found guilty of contempt of court under section 8 (1) of the 1981
Contempt of Court Act, which prevents certain details of jury deliberations being disclosed or published.
They were fined and Times Newspaper company was ordered to pay costs of over 27,000 GBP. The judge emphasised the need to keep secret the deliberations of juries, given that jurors’ confidence to express views depended on their knowledge that the views would not be revealed outside the jury room.
The applications were lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 3 and 4 June 2010. Relying on Article 10, the applicants complained that the finding of contempt of court, the fines imposed and costs ordered were incompatible with their right to freedom of expression.
Decision of the Court
The Court recalled that freedom of expression was one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and that in that context the safeguards guaranteed to the press were particularly important. However, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights did not guarantee a wholly unrestricted freedom of expression to the press, even with respect to press coverage of matters on serious public concern.
The Court emphasised that rules imposing requirements of confidentiality of judicial deliberations played an important role in maintaining the authority and impartiality of
the judiciary, by promoting free and frank discussion by those who were required to decide the issues which arose. It was therefore essential that jurors be free to air their
views and opinions on all aspects of the case and the evidence before them, without censoring themselves for fear of their general views or specific comments being
disclosed to, and criticised in, the press. It reiterated its previous finding in the case of Gregory v. the United Kingdom, 25 February 1997, § 44, that the rule governing the
secrecy of jury deliberations was a crucial and legitimate characteristic of English trial law which served to reinforce the jury’s role as the ultimate arbiter of fact and to
guarantee open and frank deliberations among jurors.
It concluded that even an absolute rule could not be viewed as unreasonable, given that any qualification would necessarily lead to an element of doubt which could undermine the very objective which the rule sought to secure.
As to whether the disclosures by the applicants in the case offended against the secrecy of the jury deliberations, the Court first observed that it was not being asked to examine the rule in circumstances involving a conviction for research into jury methods or in a case where the interests of justice could be said to require the disclosure of the jury’s deliberations.
It noted that the published comments had revealed the opinions of the majority 10 jurors in the childminder’s case at an early stage of a long deliberation, had revealed Mr Seckerson’s assessment of their opinions and statements and had disclosed their approach to the evidence in the case. The Court was satisfied that these disclosures had breached the secrecy of jury deliberations. Consequently, the UK courts’ finding the applicants guilty of contempt of court, the imposition of the fines on both applicants, and the award of costs against the second applicant had been proportionate to the legitimate aim of maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary, and necessary within the meaning of the Convention.
The Court decided to join the applications and declared them inadmissible.