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The Sunday Times Case

European Court of Human Rights
Judgment of 26 April 1979 Series A Vol. 30


Facts

Distillers Company Limited, a British company, produced a drug called thalidomide for pregnant women. Many women who took the drug gave birth to children with severe birth defects. Three hundred and eighty-nine lawsuits were filed against Distillers. While a £325 million settlement was pending, The Sunday Times (plaintiff) wrote an article condemning the settlement proposal. The article stated that Distillers did not fully test the drug and ignored warnings that the drug could potentially be dangerous. The article criticized English law and concluded that the settlement proposal was vastly disproportional to Distillers’s conduct. The attorney-general petitioned for an injunction that would prohibit the publication of the article. The Divisional Court of the Queen’s Bench Division granted the injunction on the ground that the publication would amount to contempt of court because the litigation was still pending. The court of appeal reversed, finding that the public interest in the article outweighed any impingement of the right of Distillers to have a fair trial. The House of Lords reversed. The Sunday Times filed an application with the European Court on Human Rights, claiming that the prior restraint violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning

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