The ruling in the landmark case brought by freelance journalist Bill Goodwin also makes clear that the Government would be at risk of paying substantial compensation for any future breach of a journalist's right to protect sources of information.
Mr Goodwin, now 30, was threatened with prison for five months when a 23-year-old graduate trainee for refusing to disclose a confidential source for a business story for the Engineer magazine. The story was never published. At the end of protracted litigation which went as far as the House of Lords, he was fined pounds 5,000 for contempt of court under section 10 of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.
The section allows judges to order disclosure where this is necessary for reasons of national security, the prevention of crime or disorder or - the basis of Mr Goodwin's punishment - "in the interests of justice".
The European judges ruled that this wording was too wide, breaching the free speech guarantee in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The article says restrictions on free speech are not valid unless they are necessary in a democratic society. The judges declared yesterday that "the watchdog role of the press is vital to democratic society".
Geoffrey Robertson QC, Mr Goodwin's counsel, and Geoffrey Bindman, his solicitor, said yesterday that the Government would now have no alternative but to change section 10.
Mr Bindman added that because Mr Goodwin's treatment by the British courts was tantamount to having been convicted of a crime, he would be seeking a Royal Pardon on his behalf.
Predictably, the British judge at the Strasbourg court, former Foreign Office legal adviser Sir John Freeland, dissented from the judgment. But the ruling has finally proved right the prediction by former law lord Lord Scarman when the Contempt of Court Bill went through Parliament that inclusion of the phrase "interests of justice" would result in a violation of the convention.
Mr Robertson and Mr Bindman said the case highlighted the need for a written Bill of Rights or incorporation of the convention into national law.
While the cause of investigative journalism has received a profound boost, with the prospect of British law being brought more into line with other European countries and the United States, Mr Goodwin expressed regret yesterday that the only media organisation prepared to back the haul to Strasbourg was the Wall Street Journal. The National Union of Journalists and civil rights organisations also provided backing.Reuse content