FORMER first minister Nicola Sturgeon has been arrested as part of the ongoing investigation into SNP finances. 

It comes after both the party's former chief executive and Sturgeon's husband Peter Murrell and MSP Colin Beattie were arrested and released without charge. 

In its statement, Police Scotland said: "The matter is active for the purposes of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and the public are therefore advised to exercise caution if discussing it on social media."

Here’s what you need to know about Contempt of Court:

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 is something all journalists will have heard about when learning the ropes, but its reach goes far beyond only the media.

Roddy Dunlop KC, the dean of the Faculty of Advocates, put out a warning on social media about the law when Murrell was arrested. 

“Recent developments in the world of Scottish politics lead me to issue the usual reminder: contempt of court protections are triggered, in Scotland, once an arrest is made. Please take care,” he wrote.

Dunlop had written previously: “Again: a reminder of the requirements of contempt of court. Your tweet will, unless deleted, be available forever. What might seem ok today might not be tomorrow. And it will be visible anywhere, and so even if sent from Scotland might be a contempt of English cases (or v/versa).

“Accordingly, commenting on ongoing criminal proceedings requires extreme caution and, to be frank, is best avoided – not only to avoid contempt but also because you do not want to risk imperilling the trial.”

A key phrase to remember is “substantial risk of serious prejudice”. Does the tweet or post pose such a serious risk to the court proceedings? Would a member of the jury read it and prejudge the outcome?

If the answer is yes, the post, tweet, or article could be held in contempt of court. Comments on articles on newspaper websites could also breach the law, which is why they will be disabled on many National articles as the case unfolds.

This could also be true for pictures of the arrested person. In court, witnesses may be asked to identify the suspect. If the press has published a wealth of photos of them beforehand, then witnesses may be prejudiced into wrongly identifying someone as the suspect.

This rule however is likely to prove more flexible in Sturgeon's case given her public profile as a former FM and MSP and previous appearances in the news.

What should we not say to avoid being in contempt of court?

The UK Government provides a useful checklist of things which you should avoid if you do not want to fall foul of the law once a person has been arrested and a case made "active".

The list of actions to be avoided includes:

  • saying whether you think a person is guilty or innocent
  • refering to someone’s previous convictions
  • naming someone the judge has allowed to be anonymous, even if you did not know this
  • sharing any evidence or facts about a case that the judge has said cannot be made public

What's the punishment for contempt of court?

The Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) has previously explained the contempt of court act, which it said is in place because “court is the only appropriate public forum for discussion of matters of evidence or fact in active cases”.

It warned that contempt “is punishable by up to two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine, in serious cases”.

Also to be remembered is that while the 1981 Act is UK-wide, contempt of court is taken much more seriously in Scotland than south of the Border.