Freedom of speech is important, as is the ability to report criminal court proceedings.
Still, those principles must be balanced against the right of victims of alleged sexual assault to have their anonymity protected.
Criminal court proceedings are generally public and reported on by the media on the familiar principle that justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done.
However, a major exception to this of open justice rule are cases involving sexual assault, where the protection of vulnerable complainers is especially important, and where generally the press are prevented from identifying the complainer.
Sexual assault cases are in a special category for the obvious reason that alleged victims are in the vulnerable position of often having the most private aspects of their lives exposed in court. Without complete anonymity, victims would be highly unlikely to report sexual offences to the police.
In March 2020, the former First Minister Alex Salmond went on trial for various alleged sexual offences and on March 23 he was acquitted of all charges. One of the people reporting on the trial and matters leading up to the trial was Scottish nationalist blogger, Craig Murray.
Murray seems to have been a man on a mission to expose what he saw as injustice in the proceedings against the accused.
This zeal led him to post online material that could be used to identify the women testifying against Salmond.
On the second day of the trial, the court made an order “preventing the publication of the names and identity and any information likely to disclose the identity of the complainers in the case of HMA v Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond”.
Although Murray did not identify the women by name, he linked them to various pieces of circumstantial evidence. This allowed what has become known as “jigsaw” identification.
Craig Murray’s conviction is unsurprising. He may well see himself as some kind of political prisoner, but in the eyes of the law – and probably most other people – he was simply a man who recklessly violated the confidentiality of vulnerable witnesses.
From a legal perspective, it is now clear that indirect identification is just as much a contempt of court as naming the parties.
Had the court not decided as it did it would have been far too easy to identify vulnerable witnesses, making a mockery of the law designed for their protection.
He may well see himself as some kind of political prisoner, but Craig Murray was simply a man who recklessly violated the confidentiality of vulnerable witnesses
What is a little surprising is the length of the sentence given for this offence. Admittedly, eight months is not the maximum term of two years which the court could have imposed, but it is still a significant term in prison and well beyond a token stretch.
Obviously the High Court want to send the message that offences of contempt of court – especially those involving vulnerable witnesses in sexual offence cases – will be severely punished.
Scott Crichton Styles is Senior Lecturer in Law at Aberdeen University