Paper fined £75,000 for article that derailed trial

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The Independent Online

The owners of the Sunday Mirror were fined £75,000 for contempt of court yesterday after publishing an article which led to the collapse of the first trial of two Leeds United footballers accused of being involved in a violent attack on an Asian student.

An interview with the father of the victim appeared in the paper just before the jury was due to retire to consider its verdicts on charges against Lee Bowyer and his Leeds team-mate Jonathan Woodgate in April last year.

The judge, Mr Justice Poole, stopped the high-profile case at Hull Crown Court fearing that the interview would prejudice the jury's deliberations. A second trial was ordered leaving the taxpayer footing a bill of more than £1.1m.

After taking advice from senior counsel, Lord Williams of Mostyn QC, who was Attorney General, decided to prosecute the newspaper for contempt of court.

Yesterday MGN Ltd, publisher of the Sunday Mirror, was fined £75,000 for contempt and ordered to pay £54,160 towards the state's legal costs.

Lord Justice Kennedy, sitting with Mrs Justice Rafferty in London, said the timing and content of the article had been "such as to imperil a lengthy, expensive, high-profile and difficult trial at a difficult time". The derailing of the trial and the ordering of a second trial had been "lengthy, expensive and traumatic for the complainant, his family, witnesses and defendants alike".

Andrew Caldecott QC, for the current Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, called the contempt "an extremely serious case" under the strict liability rule, which means the newspaper's conduct could be treated as contempt "regardless of an intention to do so".

The abandoned trial related to a street attack on Sarfraz Najeib, 21, who was left with a broken nose and cheekbone and fractured leg. In the interview, Mohammed Najeib said his son was beaten up in a racist attack. Earlier the judge had stressed to the jury that the racist allegation was not part of the prosecution's case.

At a retrial in December, again costing more than £1m, Mr Bowyer, an England under-21 player, was cleared of causing grievous bodily harm and affray. Woodgate was ordered to do 100 hours' community service after being found guilty of affray. He was found not guilty of causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

Yesterday Paul Vickers, group legal director of the newspaper's parent company, Trinity Mirror, said after the ruling: "We accepted a long time ago that this was a serious error of judgement to publish this article. We apologised a year ago and repeated that to the court yesterday. We consider this fine of £75,000, particularly when you take it together with costs, quite a high sum but we accept it is fair and proportionate."

He added: "We are also very pleased that the court did accept the very good record of the Mirror and that they have not been found guilty of contempt for over 50 years."

Yesterday's ruling is not the end of the legal actions arising from the two trials.

Mohammed Najeib has launched a civil action for £50,000 compensation against Mr Bowyer. Similar claims are expected be lodged against Mr Woodgate, and three others.

Mr Bowyer has asked his lawyers to investigate the possibility of suing the Sunday Mirror for negligence to recover his own £1m costs.