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
    +2

    Comment number 57.

    @54.Diogenes of Sinope
    "Perhaps jurors should sit a test to ensure they can understand instructions."

    How do you then ensure that judges give full and fair instructions, rather than ensuring jurors merely 'provide the verdict that is dictated to them'? I have already given an example of how Jurors are routinely NOT given the full story when it comes to their options.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 56.

    its called an off button, we had no problem using it before the invention of computers.......dear o dear!

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 55.

    Sticks and stones. . . . . . . This is all getting out of hand. If something that is said online that has the potential to destroy someones life, then the law should step in, but apart from that, are we such a bunch of moaners that we can't take the odd 'jab'? Plenty of us get it on here almost every day, but we don't shout 'compo'!

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 54.

    Perhaps jurors should sit a test to ensure they can understand instructions.

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 53.

    28 The standard required in a criminal court is beyond reasonable doubt - not maybe but the internet or twitterati think they must be guilty or has been guilty in the past so must have done it.

    To change that to because some inexpert research or opinions portrayed as facts suggest otherwise would be to fundamentally change the basis of our criminal judicial system.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 52.

    Wonders if

    Contempt for Politicians or
    Contempt for Greed driven Bankers

    will fall into the new laws so as to give them a little protection against the ever growing numbers of the public who find the antics of these two groups of society unacceptable and intolerable.

  • rate this
    +17

    Comment number 51.

    It's lazy justice to refer to previous convictions. The statement that the defendant has similar previous convictions has no bearing at all on whether s/he committed the current crime. It leads to lazy policing and lazy jurors: with inevitable miscarriages of justice. All you have to do is put down the phone and listen to the hard evidence instead of rumour. Is that so hard?

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 50.

    Surely the guarantee for a fair trial would be to have a panel of judges or legal experts rather than a possibly ill-informed or mis-informed panel of jurors. We hold the jury system as sacred but surely what we want is open justice (i.e. trials open to the public) but using professionals rather than amateurs to come up with a verdict?

  • rate this
    +15

    Comment number 49.

    45 vessel

    We do have free speech. You can write, tweet or say anything you like. But if that falls foul of existing libel and slander laws then you are in trouble.
    I assume you will be totally happy for 50000 people to tweet a one-off remark labelling you as a paedophile! No? They only did it the once, what's your problem?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 48.

    The problem is that the majority appear to believe what they read on the internet as fact without doing any basic research to correlate the stories being told to them.

    Justice must be blind but it shouldn't be ignorant.

  • rate this
    -22

    Comment number 47.

    If I was a juror in an important case I'd want to see what was out there on the person. The courts only give so much info and background can be missing. Maybe the internet actually makes trials fairer, and info available online should be discussed during important court cases?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 46.

    I think this being able to research someone is fair, as we do that day to day with people we meet eitehr way.

  • rate this
    -11

    Comment number 45.

    we are sold a lie that the west has free speech when clearly recent examples of people being arrested and imprisoned over TWEETS shows this not to be the case -

    I actually agree with arresting serial cyber bullies who target and abuse people over a period of time, but arresting people for one off the cuff distasteful comment is a sign the culture is turning into a PC liberal fascist police state

  • rate this
    -16

    Comment number 44.

    Jurys should be allowed to know about previous convictions. If I were on a jury today, I'd have to assume that the defendant had a previous conviction to be on the safe side, but i'd prefer to be told one way or the other

  • rate this
    +14

    Comment number 43.

    39. John

    Oh, of course!! It's never the fault of the individual is it. Those nasty Twitter site owners held a gun to my head and made me tweet unfounded, baseless crap.

    It's attitudes like that which have produced a generation who know their rights but haven't a clue about the responsibility that comes with those rights.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 42.

    17. Megan
    Surely being told 'do not do research into the case or the accused' is clear enough for any juror.
    --------------------
    I did Jury Service a few months ago and that's what we were all told my the judge.

    It was tempting to look the accused up on the internet, but I didn't; the main reason was I did not think I was being fair as a Juror if I did.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 41.

    @39.John

    Defamation is a civil matter, not a criminal one - while it's semi-relevent, it's not what this article is really about.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 40.

    Anyone who is found not guilty should not be named in the press. It is none of their business. Why the local Police and Courts feed information to the local 'rags' is beyond me. Most local papers are nothing more than 'gossip sheets'.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 39.

    Its the site owners who allow tittle tattle and gossip to be posted who should be prosecuted. Imagine if i sprayed an allegation against someone on a building with the owners approval of my actions and allowed it to be seen by passers by. It may be hard to prosecute someone who posts rumour on Twitter but the owners should be easier to go after if they allow lies to be psoted.

  • rate this
    +15

    Comment number 38.

    The one reform to existing law that is needed is that those accused of a crime should not be named until/unless they are convicted.

    Oh, and that making a false accusation should be punished severely.

 

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