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

    Comment number 37.

    to 16 DenyNothing.
    How do you know that what you tweet is fact? If you have evidence you take it to the police .... or they may come knocking at your door.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Totally unworkable, as defined by comment number 4 by FrankFisher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    16 DenyNothing

    Imagine you are accused of a crime you didn't commit and are standing trial. Twitter and Facebook are awash with 'there's no smoke without fire' claims. From your comments I assume you would be perfectly happy to be convicted because the jury were accessing social media and decided that 10000 re-tweets of such claims can't be wrong!

    I didn't think so!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    *No-one* is mentioning the elephant in the room: UK laws on contempt, rape victim anonymity, superinjunctions, and all the rest are *irrelevant* since they do NOT apply to the 98% of internet users who live outside the UK!

    This entire discussion is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; Twitter, Facebook, and a hundred similar services have made any such national laws irrelevant forever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I grew up with World in Action , Man Alive ,Panarama , etc when investigative journalism was at its height and these guys spent half their time in the pub so what wrong now. Well I call it the Google mentality or in other words they cant be bothered to do a proper investigation so they Google it plus remember this also applies in all fields we have as a society just got more lazy

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    @31.newsman face
    "Perhaps it's time to rethink the idea of jury trial."

    Jury trial is an ESSENTIAL part of our system dating to medieval times.

    Already eroded by the removal of jurors from magistrates courts and therefore from the vast majority of trials.

    If you further water down the power of jurors you might as well replace courts with star chambers and move to East Germany.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    It's very difficult not to be tempted to search for things on the internet even if you know you shouldn't. Having spent a fortnight on jury service but not seeing a single case shows how inefficient the whole system is. Perhaps it's time to rethink the idea of jury trial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Perhaps the 'defendant' should, at the outset have his past indiscretions described/admitted to in court by the Judge. A lot of info on the internet is miss informed, or just plain wrong. And anything sourced by a news organisation just plain suspect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Twitter is used by twits ! A flock of birds makes tweet noise between themselves, all at once, trying to out do each other and does not communicate with the outside world. 'Listen to me, look at me' they cry. Empty vessels making the most noise. Too much 'noise' not enough communication. Twitter is aptly named.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    In magistrates (and other) courts, it is likely that the defendant, and their history, is already well known to the judges. Their judgement is trusted, despite knowing the defendant's history, so why shouldn't a jury have access to this knowledge too? Knowing the character of the accused is clearly not a bad thing in a borderline case, is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Surely the weight of evidence regardless of where that evidence came from is a requirement of any case if jurors are expected to reach a decision on any case of law. If introducing previous evidence assists, especially for repeat offenders, then it should be used. Odd that the press appear to be able to say what they feel is necessary deemed in the interest of the public, yet other are not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    @23 - excellent point - this is not about contempt but about disclosure - one of the problems is that the prosecution has to abide by full disclosure, whereas the defence does not - this leads to the defendants playing the system and being acquitted despite being guilty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @Pete Powell
    I have top repeat Voltaire's statement:
    I may disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.
    Voltaire would have ended with ....say it, tweet it, blog it, or otherwise pass it into the media world.

    So you would defend someone accusing you of being a paedophile?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Trial by internet ? No thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I don't seem to get the difference between reading the stories the press put out about a case and the sometimes theatrical ramblings of the defendants solicitor whose stories about the innocence of their client are pure science fiction.
    I think i'd rather use all forms of information to get a balanced view

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @14 Pete Powell

    In an ideal world I would agree.
    But did Volataire think that humans would lower themselves as we have shown?
    Would Volataire defend the right to call someone a peodophile to damage other people who had another political view than theirs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    If someone continually gets involved in criminal activity then the jury has the right to know in advance. I sat on a jury for one week once watching someone 'innocent'' who was found guilty in the end, their defence lawyer immediately jumped up requesting previous offences to be taken into consideration. Its just a game where the most expensive lawyer wins, nothing to do with truth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    It would be nice for jurors to be properly schooled, after all, how many jurors are ever told that they have THREE outcomes, GUILTY, NOT GUILTY, and NULLIFACTION - jurors have the power to throw out a case where the defendant is guilty where they consider the law itself, or it's application to be unfit or unjust.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I've always believed that no-one's name should ever be made public in connection with crime until they're convicted.

    Trial by media is very dangerous indeed. Even if a person is found not guilty, the misguided idea of 'no smoke without fire', leading to 'mud sticks' has ruined the lives of many innocent people.

    How we stop it without infringing free speech is a question I can't answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Too much of whats available on the Internet is just plain wrong. Good example is that research has shown the average person swallows 8 spiders in their sleep. Story put out to see how false information became true. The last person that I told this to was quite indignant, it had to be true as she had read it on the internet. I suspect she still tells the same story now.


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