Her Majesty’s Attorney General v Punch Limited and another: HL 12 Dec 2002

A former MI5 agent, Mr Shayler, was to be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and an injunction against publication was granted. The respondent published further works by Mr Shayler, and now appealed a finding that it had acted in contempt of court.
Held: The appeal failed. The purpose of the interlocutory injunction was not merely to protect secret information, but was more to hold the position until a court had properly decided that issue. Accordingly a publication contrary to the injunction interfered with the administration of justice and was a contempt. It pre-empted the decision which a court might later make. It remained a contempt even if the information did not threaten security.
Lord Hope of Craighead spoke of the liability of a third party for contempt: ‘it has . . to be shown there was an intention on his part to interfere with or impede the administration of justice. This is an essential ingredient, and it has to be established to the criminal standard of proof.’
Lord Nicholls said: ‘Contempt of court is the established, if unfortunate, name given to the species of wrongful conduct which consists of interference with the administration of justice. It is an essential adjunct of the rule of law.
Interference with the administration of justice can take many forms. In civil proceedings one obvious form is a wilful failure by a party to the proceedings to comply with a court order made against him. By such a breach a party may frustrate, to greater or lesser extent, the purpose the court sought to achieve in making the order against him . .
The form of contempt asserted by the Attorney General in the present case is different, although closely related. Sometimes the purpose a court seeks to achieve in making an order against a party to proceedings may be deliberately impeded or prejudiced by the conduct of a third party. This may take more than one form. The third party may be assisting, that is, aiding and abetting, a breach of the order by the person against whom the order was made. Then he is an accessory to the breach of the order . .
Aiding and abetting a breach of the order by the person specifically restrained by the order is not always an essential ingredient of ‘third party’ contempt. The purpose of a court in making an order may be deliberately frustrated by a third party even though he is acting independently of the party against whom the order was made. An interlocutory order for the non-disclosure of information is the paradigm example of the type of order where this principle is in point. The Spycatcher litigation is the best known recent instance of this. It is a contempt of court by a third party, with the intention of impeding or prejudicing the administration of justice by the court in an action between two other parties, himself to do the acts which the injunction restrains the defendant in that action from committing if the acts done have some significant and adverse affect on the administration of justice in that action: see Lord Brandon of Oakbrook in Attorney General v Times Newspapers Ltd . . and, for the latter part, Lord Bingham of Cornhill CJ in Attorney General v Newspaper Publishing plc [1997] 1 WLR 927, 936. Lord Phillips MR neatly identified the rationale of this form of contempt, at [2001] QB 1028, 1055, paragraph 87:
‘The contempt is committed not because the third party is in breach of the order – the order does not bind the third party. The contempt is committed because the purpose of the judge in making the order is intentionally frustrated with the consequence that the conduct of the trial is disrupted.’


Lord Hope of Craighead


[2003] 1 All ER 289, [2003] HRLR 14, [2003] EMLR 7, Times 13-Dec-2002, [2002] UKHL 50, [2002] UKHL 43, [2003] 2 WLR 49, [2003] 1 AC 1046


House of Lords, Bailii


England and Wales


Appeal fromSteen v Her Majesty’s Attorney General; Attorney-General v Punch Ltd and Another CA 23-Mar-2001
The appellant appealed against a finding of contempt of court at common law as regards a report in Punch published when he had been its editor.
Held: The appeal succeeded. The A-G had failed to establish the mens rea of contempt in the . .

Cited by:

CitedBelize Alliance of Conservation Non-Governmental Organisations v Department of the Environment and Another (No 2) PC 13-Aug-2003
(Belize) The applicants sought an interim order preventing continuation of the building of a dam, saying that the environmental damage had not been properly aanticipated.
Held: The Board of the Council did have power to grant an interim . .
CitedHM Customs and Excise v Barclays Bank Plc HL 21-Jun-2006
The claimant had served an asset freezing order on the bank in respect of one of its customers. The bank paid out on a cheque inadvertently as to the order. The Commissioners claimed against the bank in negligence. The bank denied any duty of care. . .
CitedX and Y v Persons Unknown QBD 8-Nov-2006
The claimants sought an injunction against unknown persons who were said to have divulged confidential matters to newspapers. The order had been served on newspapers who now complained that the order was too uncertain to allow them to know how to . .
CitedCala Homes (South) Ltd, Regina (on The Application of) v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Another CA 27-May-2011
The respondent had circularised local authorities to say that when assessing future local housing needs a proper material consideration was the proposed Localism Bill which would lead to the replacement of ‘Regional Spatial Strategies’ on which such . .
CitedHutcheson v Popdog Ltd and Another CA 19-Dec-2011
The claimant had obtained an injunction to prevent the defendant publishing private materials regarding him. That injunction had been continued by consent but was no challenged by a third party news publisher.
Held: Leave to appeal was . .
CitedRhodes v OPO and Another SC 20-May-2015
The mother sought to prevent a father from publishing a book about her child’s life. It was to contain passages she said may cause psychological harm to the 12 year old son. Mother and son lived in the USA and the family court here had no . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Contempt of Court, Media

Updated: 06 June 2022; Ref: scu.178416