Contempt laws reviewed for internet age

 
Twitter on computer screen The law is meant to govern mainstream media and people publishing in blogs and tweets

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A consultation on the effectiveness of the contempt laws in England and Wales in the age of blogs and Twitter has been launched by the Law Commission.

The current law, dating back to 1981, prevents the publication of material which creates a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing a fair trial.

It applies to blogs and tweets, as well as mainstream media, but many doubt it can keep jurors away from prejudicial material published online.

The consultation runs until February.

A number of recent cases have exposed shortcomings in the law.

In January Theodora Dallas, a juror in an assault trial who researched a defendant's past on the internet and told fellow jury members the suspect had previously been accused of rape, was jailed for six months for contempt of court. But that may just be the tip of an iceberg.

The law prevents jurors from searching for information online relating to the case, and jurors are warned against doing so, but research published in 2010 revealed that 12% of jurors in high-profile cases admitted going to the internet.

The reason that poses a real danger is that the material can be prejudicial and, though it may remain in the mind of the juror, cannot be challenged by the defendant in court.

However, there are many who believe that nothing can now prevent jurors accessing material online.

They feel that the law should recognise the operation of human curiosity, and rely upon strong directions from the judge to the jury to disregard any prejudicial material they may have come across, and decide the case on the evidence presented in court - and that alone.

That is the system that operates in the United States.

The internet has given media organisations and so-called "citizen journalists" the opportunity to publish information and comment to vast audiences instantaneously.

Once information has been released on the web, it is very hard to contain. And unless steps are taken to remove it, it remains easily available to anyone with access to the internet in a way that was not true when such information was only available via newspapers and a handful of broadcasters.

The Commission - the body which keeps the law in England and Wales under review - is asking what safeguards can be put in place to prevent jurors searching for, and being able to find, potentially prejudicial material during the course of a trial, irrespective of when it was published.

It is seeking views on whether:

  • jurors should be given more in-depth, specific education about their responsibility not to seek out information on the defendant
  • jurors should be subject to a new offence of intentionally seeking information relevant to the case they are trying
  • the courts should be given statutory powers to require media organisations and others to take down potentially prejudicial content first published before proceedings became active

Professor David Ormerod, the law commissioner leading the project, said: "The purpose of our consultation is to ask how, in a modern, internet-connected society, the law of contempt can continue to support the principles that criminal cases should be tried only on the evidence heard in court.

"We are seeking ways to protect the administration of justice and the defendant's right to a fair trial while keeping to a minimum interference with the right of media organisations and private individuals to publish."

The consultation runs from Wednesday 28 November 2012 to 28 February 2013.

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 137.

    Knowing previous convictions would just bias the jury against the defendant before the case had even started, rendering innocent people with past convictions wrongly convicted, for balance you would also have to list all the good things they have done, maybe they helped a little old lady cross the road on the way to court, it then becomes a ridiculous, drawn out, pointless and confusing exercise.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 136.

    131.Conner De Public
    3 Hours ago

    The law must be the only area of life where your past has no relevance.

    ####

    Even if it proves your innocence...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 135.

    @131.Conner De Public
    The reason why prior crimes are not admitted as evidence during a trial is because that knowledge could, indeed probably would, interfere with the jury's opinions regarding the essential precept of *beyond reasonable doubt" and the concept of "innocent until proven guilty". The time at which prior crimes, if any, become relevant is when the judge decides the sentence.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 134.

    129. Steve
    2 HOURS AGO



    Social media has created an army of Frankie Boyles who think they are Voltaire. Do you honestly believe that anybody should be allowed to write anything, irrespective of accuracy? It's rather sad that the cutting edge of the 'free-speech' debate these days seems to revolve around our divine right to be gratuitously offensive or make libellous remarks about celebrities.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 133.

    @47 & 44. It is not a jurors job to investigate or research a person, their job is to decide whether guilty or not based on evidence provided to them. it is the prosecutions job to do the research & investigations & if needed the defenses job to contest it. jurors playing detective makes a mockery of the justice procedure & sets a dangerous precedent.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 132.

    The only way this could work correctly is by anonymous defendants.

    Being put in a witness box with their face hidden from everyone.
    The Name of the person becomes Defendant (or accused) "A" for anonymous.

    There will be some difficulty trying to do internet searches for such a person and the outcome of the trial pertinent to that case in question alone.

    Other safeguards are needed too, however.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 131.

    "In January Theodora Dallas, a juror in an assault trial who researched a defendant's past on the internet and told fellow jury members the suspect had previously been accused of rape, was jailed for six months for contempt of court. But that may just be the tip of an iceberg"

    The law must be the only area of life where your past has no relevance.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 130.

    Many well known UK companies are likely to have committed perjury when they notified the Information Commissioner - because they had no intention of complying fully with the DPA98. The notification form states that giving false information may be an offence under section 5 of the Perjury Act 1911.

    If they had no intention of complying fully with the DPA shouldn't they have made the ICO aware?

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 129.

    118.whambam
    @117. thelostdot
    "Any body should be able to say anything online"

    What even if it is untrue, offensive, racist, homophobic? Not what I would personally advocate tbh
    -------------------------------------------------------
    Then you are obviously far more dangerous

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 128.

    Theodora Dallas only did what any sensible juror would do, ie discover previous convictions of the person in the dock.

    If the law needs changing, then it should allow jurors to know beforehand whether someone brought before the Court is a serial offender. Many more rapists, murderers etc would then get their just desserts, and not get let off.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 127.

    The law is fine as it stands. Prosecutors should be able to able to demonstrate guilt beyond reasonable doubt to secure a conviction.

    Anything less is unacceptable. Look at the silliness over where Barack Omaba was born. Innuendo and often told lies have no place in justice.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 126.

    I thought this was always the case. However, will this now mean that anyone with a vague interest in the news and current events will be no longer eligible for jury service? The idea of professional jurors have been mooted in the past. A back door way of achieving that aim?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 125.

    As long as we have unscrupulous defence lawyers who hide or distort the truth to get a 'not guilty' verdict for their 'innocent' clients, we'll never have a decent justice system.
    A jury is inexperienced in the tricks that are used in trials, so how are they meant to arrive at the correct verdict? Leave it up to a jury of professionals (judges, lawyers etc) and we might end up with better verdicts

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 124.

    @JC ;+P=A Joke,dont take it too serious now.

    Ive just joined a a social media site and am finding it quite amusing.I havent typed anything bad,just moderatly funny.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 123.

    There is a kind of elitist sentiment in this country that wants prosecution beyond any doubt, rather than beyond reasonable doubt, and that is where I think the problem lies. It means that with a kind of certain snobbery some people will tell you that you are wrong to want to know personal history in a marginal case. Myself I think it's important it IS revealed.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 122.

    I sometimes wonder whether the legal profession have much idea what goes on in a Jury room. I did Jury service once and was amazed at the prejudices some fellow Jurors carried in. Others desperately tried to interpret clues on which way the Judge thought the decision to go. I think it left 3 of us actually sorting through the evidence presented.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 121.

    118 Whambam. Perhaps I should complete here! Anybody should be able to say anything, but should also be held properly acccountable as well. And I mean properly. I think we need a new kind of part of the legal system that does not allow the wealthy and powerful such an overwelming advantage, but at the same time also allows them to reasonably defend themselves. Thisis personal libertynot newspapers

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 120.

    We now seem to live in a world where “Trial-by-media” is trying to take over. Traditional media routes know the rules of sub judice, it’s time that new media learns its responsibilities; the courts must impose appropriate penalties for those who break the rules

    Jurors should be given a very clear brief before they are sworn in; if they do and break the rules then they should face charges

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 119.

    A jury may hear character witnesses, which could be false, and would affect the outcome, so to be fair access to ALL past history of all involved in the case should be allowed. I am reminded of a case where one member of the jury didn;t believe the defendent could be guilty, so a majority was taken. After the guilty verdict it took ten mins to read out the defendent's previous convictions........

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 118.

    @117. thelostdot
    "Any body should be able to say anything online"

    What even if it is untrue, offensive, racist, homophobic? Not what I would personally advocate tbh

 

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