Byline Times‘ court reporter James Doleman looks at Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s weak defence and shaky demeanour throughout his long-awaited contempt of court Old Bailey trial.
It was an odd couple of days at the Old Bailey.
When I arrived on Thursday morning, the first thing I saw was that the normally busy street was closed off and a van with a giant screen was stationed at the top. Around it milled a small group of ‘Tommy Robinson’ supporters, including Katie Hopkins and a man in full Crusader armour.
Large numbers of City of London public order police were stationed around the court. They would be busy later.
The trial itself was held in court two, one of the historic, oak-panelled courts in the oldest part of the building. It’s a big court, but wasn’t particularly busy and the assembled journalists sat in the empty jury box for a better view.
Two bewigged judges sat on the benches above us: Mr Justice Mark Warby and Dame Victoria Sharp. Contempt cases are always heard by a judge as “it is not a wrong done to another party to the litigation. It is an affront to the rule of law itself and to the court”.
‘Tommy Robinson’ himself, being tried under his real name of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, was not in the enclosed dock at the centre of the court, but instead sat behind his legal team, looking nervous and belligerent.
Before the case began, I had thought a lot about what Yaxley-Lennon’s defence would be.
Breaching reporting restrictions in a court case is a ‘strict liability’ offence. Like driving whilst using a mobile phone, it doesn’t matter what your intent was or if you knew what you were doing was a crime or not – if you do it, you’re guilty. All that’s left is mitigation.
I’ve been in a few court cases and must admit that this was the first time I’ve seen a defendant testify that the witness he is relying on is a liar who can’t be trusted.
Most reporting restrictions are there for a good reason. You can’t name a defendant who is under 16, you can’t name a victim of a sexual crime, or mention an accused’s previous convictions.
In his case, Yaxley-Lennon breached a reporting restriction order over a series of three linked trials which took place at Leeds Crown Court in May 2018. Reporting of trials one and two was postponed until trial three was completed. This was to ensure that the defendants all got a fair trial.
As it turned out, I needn’t have wasted all that thinking time. He didn’t have a defence. Or he did, sort of, it was just too ludicrous to take seriously.
Yaxley-Lennon claimed that he didn’t know about the reporting restrictions, despite the fact he mentioned them repeatedly in his live stream from outside Leeds Crown Court. He said he had sent a colleague, Caolan Robertson, inside to check and that he had reported back that there was nothing on the electronic screens outside the court.
When asked why Mr Robertson wasn’t giving evidence, Yaxley-Lennon replied that he had discovered Caolan was a “left-wing infiltrator” who had “stolen £3,000″ from him.
I’ve been at a good few court cases and must admit that this was the first time I’ve seen a defendant testify that the witness he is relying on is a liar who can’t be trusted.
The two witnesses that were called didn’t do much better for Yaxley-Lennon.
A security officer agreed he had spoken to the accused at the front door of Leeds Crown Court, but, when asked about reporting restrictions had told him to check at the court office. The office manager agreed that the restrictions were not displayed on the court screens due to a “technical error”, but said that there was a copy pinned to the office noticeboard and that all staff were aware of what to tell anyone who asked. She couldn’t recall anyone asking that day.
Yaxley-Lennon in the Dock
Then, Yaxley-Lennon gave his evidence.
He tried to bluster a bit and say the words “Muslim rape gangs” as often as possible. He was only thinking of the children involved when he posted his live stream, he said. Eventually one of the judges, Dame Sharp, had to gently remind him – twice – to answer the questions he was being asked, rather than make speeches. Yaxley-Lennon also claimed that he had received extensive training in the rules of contempt of court from top London solicitors Kingsley Napley.
When court broke for lunch, Yaxley-Lennon was given the standard instruction that, as he was still giving evidence, he should discuss the case with no one during the interval. He then went outside and made a speech to the assembled crowd about his evidence.
When court resumed at 2pm, the prosecution barrister, Andrew Caldecott QC, went in for the kill. He pointed out that the Leeds Crown Court doors did not open until 8.30 am, and that the office didn’t open until 9am. Yaxley-Lennon’s live stream began at 8.29am. So how could his former colleague, Caolan, have entered a closed building and then go to a closed office to check anything before the live stream began?
Yaxley-Lennon also claimed he had received extensive training in the rules of contempt of court from top London solicitors Kingsley Napley.
Yaxley-Lennon said he had photos of the court screens, but it turned out he didn’t. Caolan had them, but he wasn’t responding to emails or telephone calls, so no, he didn’t have them.
I don’t know who was more relieved when Robinson’s embarrassing testimony ended, us or his defence counsel.
After all that, Friday was a bit of an anti-climax.
Everyone knew this was only going one way. In the morning, Yaxley-Lennon approached the press benches and asked us “who are you all lying for?” but nobody reacted.
After closing speeches, the two judges left the court briefly, before returning and stating the obvious: that ‘Tommy Robinson’ was guilty on all three charges and would be sentenced on 11 July. The defence asked for time to procure medical reports. No decision was made.
I still feel a pang when the judge says “take him down,” imagining that given the wrong circumstances, we might all be capable of the same.
As we left the court, the police had drawn their batons and “shame on you” was being shouted by a crowd of about 200 people. A few beer cans were thrown (Stella, naturally). But, the crowd was aging and had been standing in the sun all day. They had no real appetite for taking on the black-clad City of London police.
Later, after things calmed down, Yaxley-Lennon made a speech saying that he had expected the verdict. That wasn’t my impression. When it came in, his face went bright red and he seemed close to tears.
It’s not guaranteed that Yaxley-Lennon will go back to jail, but it’s likely, given the serious view courts usually take about any unlawful interference with the course of justice.
I have a terrible flaw of usually feeling sorry for defendants in criminal trials. Often they have done terrible things, yet I still feel a pang when the judge says “take him down”, imagining that given the wrong circumstances, we might all be capable of the same.
In this case, all I thought was “he’s brought it on himself”.