The Attorney General has won permission to bring contempt of court proceedings against two national newspapers over the coverage of Levi Bellfield’s conviction for the murder and abduction of Walton-on-Thames schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Two judges at the High Court in London gave the go-ahead to Dominic Grieve QC to bring action against the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror.
Bellfield was convicted on 23 June this year of abducting and murdering 13-year-old Milly. The jury still had to reach a verdict on a second charge – that the day before he snatched Milly from a street in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 2002, he had attempted to abduct Rachel Cowles, then aged 11.
But on 24 June the trial judge, Mr Justice Wilkie, discharged the jury from returning a verdict on the charge relating to Cowles, saying that the publicity following Bellfield’s murder conviction was so prejudicial that the jury could no longer be expected to consider it.
Lord Justice Moore-Bick and Justice Bean heard argument on Tuesday on behalf of the two newspapers that their publications would not have created a “substantial risk of serious prejudice”.
But the judges, who only had to decide at this stage whether the Attorney General has an “arguable” case against them, granted permission. A full hearing of the contempt allegations will now be held at a date to be fixed.
David Perry QC, for the Attorney General, said it was right to point out that the trial judge discharged the jury on the basis of what he had described as the “avalanche” of publicity, rather than focusing on any particular publication.
He told the two judges that the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror published articles which “vilified the defendant by reference to material that was not before the jury as a result of anything that had been said in the trial”.
The judges heard submissions on behalf of the newspapers in contesting the application that in such an “unusual” case, where jurors knew he had committed other murders, the Attorney General could not prove his case to the “criminal standard”. They said it was not arguable that the publications could have created a substantial risk of serious prejudice.
Lord Justice Moore-Bick said the application by the Attorney General was for “permission to apply for orders of committal or other appropriate remedy” against the publishers of the two newspapers. Announcing the decision of the court, he said: “We have reached the conclusion that it cannot be said that there is no real prospect of an application succeeding.”