Jonathan Palmer, 30, died at Wandsworth prison on November 19 before he was due to go on trial with his brother Stuart, 28, and half-brother, Jason Lewin, 33, accused of murdering pensioner Peter Lee, 75, by running him over after a break-in in Tooting in June last year.
The start of the trial, scheduled for December 1 was duly delayed.
But Judge John Bevan made an order under section 4 (2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 banning any reporting of the fact of the death until after the proceedings were over.
However the Wimbledon Guardian was not told about the order when a journalist called the court to ask about the delay in starting the trial.
And by the time the paper was told about an order – by the Crown Prosecution Service – it had already published two stories online.
The first story was about the hearing being delayed. The second, reporting Jonathan Palmer’s sudden death – the real reason for the day – appeared three days later, following a tip-off.
The paper first heard of the order when the CPS called to respond to an inquiry earlier in the day about the death – but the CPS refused to provide a copy of the order, saying it should come from the court.
PA legal editor Mike Dodd helped Becky Middleton, the paper’s then news editor, prepare a written submission for the court raising concerns about the communication of the order, which had left the newspaper potentially at risk of action for contempt of court over its story on Jonathan Palmer’s death because it had not known of the postponement order.
They argued that, even if the order stood, the newspaper’s report of Mr Palmer’s death had not breached it, as the report about his death in custody was not “a report of proceedings or any part of proceedings”.
A clerk at the court e-mailed a response saying that Judge Bevan “is not sure he can continue a contempt order on a deceased person and he does not believe that he has authority to stop the publication on [sic] the deceased.
“Furthermore he announced that The Wimbledon Guardian do not need to worry about breach of the Contempt Order as one does not exist.”
The judge also apologised for the “admin error” which had led to the shortcomings in communication. The court had only alerted a PA reporter and a Central News reporter to the order, in the mistaken belief that it was PA’s job to alert the entire British media of reporting restriction orders.
At present there is no centralised database for current reporting restriction orders, and no way in which news organisations across the country can be alerted to the existence of such orders.
Said Becky: “It is unbelievable to think the press would not have been able to mention the third defendant, Jonathan Palmer, the fact he was charged with murder, that he was dead or that he had killed himself in Wandsworth Prison.
“This information was a key part of the case and it made no sense to leave it out. I am happy the judge agreed with our submission.”
The two surviving defendants, half-brothers Jason Lewin, 34, of Morden, and Stewart Palmer, 29, of Brentford, were later cleared of murdering 75-year-old Peter Lee but convicted of aggravated burglary with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
Lewin was last week jailed for 15 years and Palmer for ten.