James Baines gets suspended sentence for ‘Bulger’ tweet

Introduction

Images purporting to show photographs of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson (who killed Jamie Bulger when they were ten years old) as they are today have been circulating on the internet for a while.

The issue with this is that both boys were given new identities on their release from prison and there is a worldwide injunction prohibiting publishing anything that might reveal their new identity.

 

Facts

On 14th February 2013 James Baines tweeted an image that claimed to be a photograph of Mr Venables as he appears now. On 27th November, he admitted being in contempt of court by doing so.

Mr Baines was sentenced to 14 months in prison, suspended (probably for a year) as well as being ordered to pay £3,000 in costs.

There are no sentencing guidelines for Contempt, but the Courts take it very seriously, for obvious reasons (the CPS have some guidance here). A custodial sentence is pretty much inevitable.

I was (pleasantly) surprised that the sentence was suspended. We will have to see what the full sentencing remarks are, but I would imagine that it was his plea of guilty that saved him from being locked up immediately.

We do have the judgment in the case of Neil Harkins and Dean Liddle who posted photographs of Mr Venables and Mr Thompson to Facebook and Twitter respectively on 12th February 2013.

This sets out the following potential aggravating features:

  • Potential consequences to Mr Venables and Mr Thompson (and others who may be mistaken for them) were severe
  • Knowledge of the injunction (so a deliberate breach)
  • Being part of a concerted internet campaign to breach the injunction

There were the following mitigating features:

  • Removal of the images when contacted by the authorities
  • A prompt apology

In Mr Baines case it seems that all of the aggravating and mitigating features were present (save for evidence of there being a concerted campaign).

Mr Hawkins and Mr Liddle received sentences of 9 months each. However, due to the mitigation available and the fact that they did not fully appreciate the seriousness of what they were doing, these were suspended for 15 months.

The Court finished with the following warning ‘We must however conclude by saying that for the future if there is a similar publication on the internet or through the social media then we consider that there will be little prospect of such a person – if the publication occurs after the date of this judgment – escaping from a substantial custodial sentence without there being any prospect of suspension

Mr Baines had, by then, already sent his tweet. If it happens again, whoever is next taken to Court can expect to be leaving in a prison van.

 

Comment

Dominic Grieve has been proactive in enforcing the rules on contempt and we can expect more of this.

The internet is a game changer in most areas of life. It is clear that this judgment is not going to stop people tweeting and sharing whatever they like, but hopefully it will make some think twice before doing so.

I can see that there is an argument that the internet makes the injunction redundant (and should therefore not be enforced) especially as the Courts in England and Wales don’t have jurisdiction abroad. I do think that it’s important that Court orders are obeyed, so I would not support that.

There is a good argument for a full debate as to how Courts should approach the internet, but this must be done via a public discussion rather than individuals taking the law into their own hands.

 

What about freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech, particularly in relation to court proceedings, has also been a very important feature of British justice. It does have limits and given the real danger that Mr Venables and Mr Thompson would be placed in if their identities were known, this encroachment into the usual rules is clearly justifiable.

Of course, if we were a bit more civilised, and a less blood thirsty society (perhaps more like Norway) then the need for the injunction may be much less…

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About Dan Bunting

I'm a lawyer who works for myself. Legal geek, maths freak, general dullard and jack of all trades. Here’s a few views on law and occasional musings on life. Usual caveats about not relying on anything I say etc applies.

14 thoughts on “James Baines gets suspended sentence for ‘Bulger’ tweet

  1. TBoy

    “I was (pleasantly) surprised that the sentence was suspended.”

    Why? Does this not mean they got away with it? The fine was small compared to all the problems it made. Also doesn’t it seem strange for a judge to say “I’m letting you off, but not the next one” … why the difference?

    Reply
    1. Dan Bunting Post author

      To my mind a suspended sentence isn’t ‘getting away with it’. Partly it means that it will be hanging over him, but (in most cases) it is a serious mark on his record with consequences (has to be declared for jobs, bars you from going to America, etc, etc).

      This was a serious breach of an injunction, but in this internet age it is very easily done. I think that the Court have struck a sensible balance.

      As to the second point – the publicity from these cases means that everyone now knows how serious it is and that tweeting in breach of an injunction can lead to action being taken. For that reason the Court have said that next time someone does it (and they will) they do it with their eyes wide open with no excuses, so off to prison they will go.

      Reply
  2. Andrew

    Does it really bar you from America? I know they ask but do they have access to the PNC? My wife was done for careless driving c 1975 (before I met her) and we have paid a number of trips Stateside!

    Reply
    1. Dan Bunting Post author

      I think it does? I’m sure you’re right that they don’t have access to the PNC, but I’m sure you’re not advocating lying to the US Government?!

      Reply
      1. JG

        They probably do have access to the PNC – after all, they seem to have access to every other computer…

  3. Andrew

    Economy with the truth, Dan. At least it’s not like getting an Aussie visa where a criminal record used to be compulsory, at least if you did not want to pay your own fare . . .

    Reply
  4. Andrew

    Sorry, Dan, are you of the Aussie persuasion?

    A Kiwi colleague of mine tells me that “You can always tell Aussies with any get up and go because they get up and go!”

    I also cannot resist telling this one about my late mother-in-law. One of her nieces, before I knew the family, spent the first three years of her married life in Australia, her husband being seconded there for his work. When they came back she was four months pregnant with her first-born and his arrival in the world was troublesome because he was a breech birth. They both made it, and mother-in-law remarked “Well, what did she expect, he was started upside down . . .” and unfortunately she was not joking.

    Reply
  5. Tracey McMahon (@MAFTC)

    This goes to show how little the public are aware of the suspended sentence issue. As a person who is serving one, in terms of the CJS, it carries as much weight as a custodial sentence. There is no “getting away” with anything. The credit for serving in the community is simply that. A credit. The rehabilitation period is the same as that of a custodial one. In fact, in my case, had I been sentenced to the custodial aspect of 18 weeks, my sentence would have been completed. It is not. I have another six months to serve.

    In terms of travel to the USA. Moral turpitude is the one the Americans use. Having a criminal conviction in the UK means that one cannot or should not travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme and one has to apply for a separate visa. Drug convictions and sexual convictions are likely to be turned down and dishonesty offences are looked at by the American embassy in terms of how long, what the crime was for. You can travel and risk it, however, there is a large risk in that you could be sent back on entry. Not a risk I would take. I might be wrong, but it would be those who are on international warrants from the UK who the American Immigration officials would have access to. If serving a SOPO for example, then the restrictions on travel would be heavy and likely entry into the USA would be refused. (But don’t quote me on that otherwise Lyndon might come after me)

    Malaysia on the other hand, I didn’t have to disclose anything. Can’t comment on Australia, I have never been.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Ian Watkins case – more Contempt proceedings? | UK Criminal Law Blog

  7. goggzilla

    AG v Harkins & Liddle plus R v Baines (?) Dealing with the Venables case the exact same information is posted outside the UK. We see similarities with R v Evans & McDonald when the identity of the “victim” was widely disseminated. Finally R v Turner and Michael Le Vell. In the cyberage there is no successful way to stifle freedom. Why did Turner (Le Vell) not have anonymity? Wimmin get it, even false multiple accusers.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Attorney-General in further warning on contempt | UK Criminal Law Blog

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