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1 August 2018updated 20 Jan 2020 1:12pm

Tommy Robinson deserves a fair trial – and so do victims in court cases

Had he continued to film outside Canterbury’s court, the defendants could have asked for the trial to be stopped and the jury discharged, possibly avoiding justice.

By Nazir Afzal

The Appeal Court, including the Lord Chief Justice, considered the contempt proceedings against Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) and after the noise has passed, let’s reflect on what it said.

The court had no problem with his conviction for contempt at Canterbury Crown Court in May 2017, where he tried to film the defendants in the court building in breach of the law (Section 41 Criminal Justice Act 1925, in case you ask). He also referred to people as “Muslim paedophiles” while trials were ongoing and in the potential presence of jurors and others, which was likely to prejudice the jury and mean that the defendants would not get a fair trial. In fact, had he continued, the defendants had the right to invite the judge to stop the trial, discharge the jury and possibly avoid justice altogether. The suspended sentence he received for that still stands.

In relation to his second conviction at the Leeds Crown Court this spring, the Appeal Court decided that the judge had been hasty in moving to judgement. Again, Yaxley-Lennon was streaming a video outside the court when he knew there were reporting restrictions in place.

The court decided that since the first concern – the video – had been taken down, a short delay in dealing with the matter would have been appropriate. Yaxley-Lennon accepted he was in breach of reporting restrictions, and a delay would have allowed him to present his case better. The Appeal Court showed some sympathy for the judge because he was clearly concerned about the integrity of the trial he was dealing with, the second of three linked trials, which was close to finishing.

So, Yaxley-Lennon must return to Leeds Crown Court before another judge for that latter matter to be re-heard. There is a sting in the tail. The Appeal Court have given a steer to the judge: “The alleged contempt was serious and the sentence might be longer than that already served.”

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So he didn’t get off “on a technicality”. Had the defendants in these cases decided to make an application that they were prejudiced by his behaviour, and been successful, they could have stopped the trial. That, too, would not have been a technicality. It would, however, have led to cases collapsing, the accused walking free and possible victims getting no justice.

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The right to a fair trial was first established in the Magna Carta – in that regard the English court system led the world. It’s now enshrined in our human rights laws. It means that the jury can only hear evidence that’s permitted by the judge, to avoid prejudicial material (that is not evidence) affecting their decision.

It means that Yaxley-Lennon is entitled to due process being followed, in exactly the same way that his admitted behaviour very nearly denied those other defendants their right to a fair trial.

In my experience of successfully prosecuting dozens of defendants in these grooming type cases, the extreme right and those who were convicted had the same strategy – get this trial stopped. My teams and the police spent an extraordinary amount of time and money ensuring these trials went ahead; policing disorder, supporting the victims, managing reporting restrictions and giving the defence everything they needed to present their cases.

For the extreme right, having the case stopped would feed their narrative that the “establishment” is protecting these criminals. For the defendants, they knew that I would have struggled to persuade victims to come back to give evidence at a later trial. The victims, and justice, would be the only losers.

Nazir Afzal OBE is the former chief prosecutor for North West England. During his time in the role, he initiated the prosecution of grooming gangs in Rochdale. Follow him @NazirAfzal.