Times hit with £15,000 contempt fine for jury story

The Times was fined £15,000 today for contempt of court in disclosing “secrets of the jury room” after a manslaughter trial.

Jury foreman Michael Seckerson, who provided the information to the newspaper, was fined £500.

Both are to seek permission to appeal to the House of Lords against the High Court’s finding of contempt, announced last week.

The case was brought by Attorney General Baroness Scotland QC under Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act, which bans disclosure of “votes cast, statements made, opinions expressed or arguments advanced” by members of a jury in their deliberations.

Seckerson, 66, a retired lecturer at East Berkshire College, was one of two jurors who dissented from the 10-2 majority verdict in the case of Keran Henderson, a child minder convicted of the manslaughter of a child in her care, 11-month-old Maeve Sheppard.

Henderson, who was jailed for three years, is appealing against her conviction.

Lord Justice Pill and Mr Justice Sweeney heard that, on 19 December 2007, five weeks after the Reading Crown Court trial, The Times published articles by its legal editor, Frances Gibb.

The articles reported that two jurors were questioning the verdict and the role played in the trial by complicated evidence from expert medical witnesses.

The defendants argued unsuccessfully that contempt proceedings could not be justified in this case in the light of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression, subject to exceptions such as the need to maintain the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

Today, Seckerson, who lives near Maidenhead, Berkshire, apologised to the court while reserving the right to seek leave to appeal.

Lawyers for The Times said it respected the court’s judgment on the contempt issue, but an apology would ring “hollow” because it did not agree with the court and would attempt to appeal to the House of Lords.

They pointed out there had been no damage to the administration of justice; no individual juror was identified; no individual’s opinions were disclosed, and the articles were written in good faith, after taking legal advice, on a matter of public importance – the heavy reliance placed on expert medical evidence in “shaken baby” cases.

Lord Justice Pill said the court acknowledged those mitigating factors, but had to impose penalties “sufficient to mark the seriousness of breaches of Section 8 and to deter others from following the example of this juror and this newspaper”.

The Attorney General was awarded £27,426 costs, which fall to be paid by The Times because Mr Seckerson was legally-aided and the judges ruled that costs should not be enforced against him without leave of the court.

The newspaper said in a statement: “The Times believes that this judgment is a serious infringement of its Article 10 right to free speech and its duty to act as watchdog in a democratic society, particularly in complex cases where there could be a serious injustice.”

If the court’s judgment were not reversed by the House of Lords, it would have “a very serious chilling effect on jurors and newspapers trying to bring to the attention of the public areas of very considerable public concern, particularly in manslaughter cases involving the deaths of babies and the use of expert witnesses”.

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