The publisher of The Sun could dodge a prosecution for allegedly identifying the girl at the centre of a footballer's sex offences trial thanks to a police blunder, a court heard today.
The newspaper and its former editor David Dinsmore, 47, are accused of breaching the anonymity of the underage girl that Sunderland player Adam Johnson is accused of engaging in sexual activity with.
But Durham Police misidentified The Sun's publisher, News Group Newspapers, as its parent company News Corporation on paperwork to get the case to court.
Gavin Millar QC, defending News Corp, today applied for the case to be thrown out against the company because the blunder has rendered the prosecution "null and void".
Prosecutors will go after Dinsmore regardless, but the company could walk free as the time limit has now expired for new papers to be drawn up.
Mr Millar QC, told a hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court consent for charging News Group Newspapers was correctly sought from the Attorney General on August 27.
But the company name was insert wrongly as News Corp on a requisition form ordering the firm to appear in court.
"Proceedings were initiated against News Corp for a publishing matter," he said
"The Attorney General has to determine who an appropriate defendant is and whether it is appropriate for the prosecution to be brought.
"In a quasi contempt of court issue, it is a common role of the Attorney General to protect the public interest which is at the forefront here.'
He said since the permission from the Attorney General was to charge News Group Newspaper, but News Corp had been charged instead, meaning the case could be thrown out.
"The fact the proceedings were instituted against News Corp without the consent of the Attorney General renders it null and void," he argued.
"Proceedings initiated without the necessary consent of the Attorney General are a nullity."
He said that the criminal charge was clearly in News Corp's name, and the prosecution could not suggest that because they intended it for The Sun's publisher that the error could be easily corrected.
"The charge specifies News Corp, there can be no question a criminal charge must specify who the defendant is," he said.
"The suggestion the written charge could be read as charging someone other than News Corp is wrong in law."
The case arises out of an article in The Sun on March 4 which allegedly revealed the girl's identity through pixelated images and details in the story itself.
Johnson, 28, is due to face trial in February next year at Bradford Crown Court for three counts of sexual activity with a child and one count of grooming.
The images had been taken from the teen’s Facebook page, and victims of sexual offences are granted life-long anonymity under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
The press are prohibited from publishing the name, address, place of work or education or any image of the victim, or any other details that might lead to their identification.
Sarah Whitehouse QC, prosecuting, admitted: "There can be no dispute the requisition is defective."
But she argued that the court charge could be amended to reflect the proper publisher of the newspaper and fix the problem.
"That company is wholly owned by the company to whom the requisition was addressed," she said.
"Strictly speaking the published of the newspaper is News Group, and the parent company is one step removed from News Group itself.
"They may own the publisher of the newspaper but they are not the publisher."
She told the court: "'We accept that a charge can't be amended so as to bring a different charge, but the charge is laid against the published of the newspaper."
She said Mr Millar's argument was a "red herring" as the question to be tackled was whether the charge was valid.
"The only question is whether the charge is valid, and whether or not the written requisition could be amended outside the time limit," she said.
"It's plain the subject of the charge is the publisher of the newspaper, and it is a wholly separate document albeit contained within the same document from the requisition itself."
She also suggested that the issue could be deferred as News Group Newspapers was not technically represented in court by a barrister.
"I wonder whether this argument is not premature, whether the appropriate course would be for the prosecution to issue a fresh requisition and leave it to News Group to make submissions on whether that fresh requisition is valid."
Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle told the hearing: "It still seems to me the fundamental question; is the right defendant before the court?"
He admitted not "completely coming to grips with Mr Millar's argument" and said he would defer giving a decision until the New Year, to be distributed to the parties in writing.
Dinsmore, who has vowed to fight the charge, was not in court for today's hearing.
He is due to stand trial at Westminster Magistrates Court on March 7.