Social media users warned over court case comments


How to avoid legal action over a tweet or status update

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The attorney general is to publish guidance on Twitter to help prevent social media users from committing contempt of court when commenting on legal cases.

Dominic Grieve QC said it was designed to make sure fair trials took place.

Peaches Geldof recently apologised for tweets relating to a case, and several people were fined last year for naming a woman raped by footballer Ched Evans.

The advice will apply to court cases in England and Wales.

Legal pitfalls

The rise of social media has meant that conversations about criminal cases, once had down the pub or over the garden fence, are now instantly published online - and can be shared with thousands, BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman says.


There is a public misconception that the internet is somehow a free speech zone to which the criminal and civil law does not apply. That is being corrected.

The attorney general has taken action against three men who used Twitter and Facebook to publish photographs purporting to be of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the murderers of the toddler James Bulger, as grown- ups. They breached a worldwide injunction preventing publication of any material that could identify the two killers.

Last year nine people were prosecuted for posting the name of the woman raped by former Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans, on various social media sites. All nine claimed that they did not know it was a criminal offence to name the victim of a sexual offence. Ignorance was no defence.

Instant publication on the internet can go viral at an astonishing rate but so too can the message that the criminal and civil law applies to it as much as to a considered newspaper article. Education on the law of contempt is likely to spread very rapidly online.

But Facebook and Twitter are publications subject to the same laws that in practice used to apply only to the mainstream media.

Anyone commenting about a case or defendant in a way that could prejudice a trial could be prosecuted for contempt and imprisoned.

That is why the attorney general is going to start publishing advice - that previously only went to the media - to the public via his website and Twitter feed.

It is designed to help inform people about the legal pitfalls of commenting in a way that could be seen as prejudicial to a court case or those involved.

Mr Grieve said blogs and social media sites allow individuals to reach thousands of people with a single post, which he said was an "exciting prospect" but one which "can pose certain challenges to the criminal justice system".

He said he was not proposing "some sort of big brother watch" but wanted to educate people, possibly starting in schools.

Guidelines currently issued to the media about high-profile cases could be published online and through Twitter to prevent legal risks and the collapse of trials, he said.

Peaches Geldof Peaches Geldof apologised for tweets about the case of rock star Ian Watkins

Mr Grieve said tweets by a juror had caused one sexual offences case to collapse, costing £300,000 and "requiring all the witnesses to go through the process all over again".

And he said misuse of social media could undermine the fairness of trials, which could call into question "the whole future of jury trials, which most people regard as a very important safeguard for our freedoms".

He said the "simplest rule" people should follow is not to comment on live trials online.

'Emotional states'

Technology expert Tom Cheesewright said social media offered "instant publishing".

He said some individuals have more Twitter followers than national newspapers have subscribers but - unlike journalists - they do not have legal training or "an editor to stop them".

People may write posts while drunk or in "emotional states", he added.

Tom Cheesewright: "Part of our education is going to come from high-profile prosecutions of people who've broken the law"

"It's very unlikely we're going to have rules that stop this happening," he said.

"It's going to be about education and part of that education is going to come from high-profile prosecutions."

He said laws for print media had developed over many years and society would have to "go through the same process with social media" to develop laws and "public understanding".

Rupinder Bains, a lawyer specialising in social media, said she did not think many people would read the attorney general's tweets and guidelines.

But she said if more people were prosecuted the publicity would lead to "future prevention".

Asked about people who tweet in the belief that they will not be prosecuted for breaching legal rules, she said: "You will be eventually. The law will catch up."

A mobile phone displaying Twitter An expert said people using Twitter have no "editor to stop them"

Peaches Geldof apologised last week for tweeting the names of the two mothers whose babies were abused by rock star Ian Watkins.

Police are investigating the tweets over concerns that they identified protected parties.

The HM Courts and Tribunals Service has told BBC Newsbeat it is sorry for publishing the names of the other defendants in the Watkins case online.

The courts service admitted it had "mistakenly" published the names of two mothers convicted of sexually abusing their children and said the names were "quickly removed".

The case of Ched Evans, who was jailed for rape, generated more than 6,000 tweets, with some people naming his victim.

Complainants in sexual offence cases get lifelong anonymity from the moment an allegation is made.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Thing is, so much of this "secret" information is also available & accessible on foreign media. Someone in UK may see it & tweet it not knowing it is illegal to do so.

    If anything, ultimately the police should be investigating those who had access to the original information & then made it public.

    It is ridiculous to criminalise & punish the public for failures in the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    VictorDubleSusex, Yes, please grow up and understand that your opinion is just what it is, your opinion. Can't you understand that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    No more freedom of speech ..... I'm surprised they haven't taxed it!
    Mind you this just highlights what we have over here in our 'shadows' .....

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    There are Already laws in place to stop jurors from talking about a case. New laws DO NOT need to be put in play. Its made very clear to jurors, that they cannot say anything to anyone about the case. Clearly this includes twitter. The public should not be under the same umbrella.

    The UK's crackdown on personal freedoms is extreme and is gaining more and more traction. Extremely disturbing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    It has been said many times, by judges that "ignorance of the law" is not excusable.

    My response to that, is that judges themselves have experts in court to inform them of the law, so judges are themselves ignorant of laws.

    In this age, laws are so many & complicated that one would need to be a one hundred headed/brained Albert Einstein​ to know them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Cobbler, and all you others with the same views... use your heads (and brains) you can't just say what you want on the internet anymore than can say to someone's face if it's either slanderous or libellous! So stop crying the fatuous "free speech" tosh and grow up. Opinions are what they are, simply an opinion but unfounded allegations are to be avoided or can't any of you understand that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I was born and bred in London and always agreed that free speech needs some kind of limits. Then I moved to America and slowly over time I realized just how important allowing someone to say their piece no matter how much you disagreed with it was.

    Its incredibly insidious to actually have laws that crack down on freedom of expression online.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    @43 Random Advise

    I agree with your statement for anyone who deliberately breaks the law, but as Clive Coleman points out in his analysis on this page, last year 9 people were prosecuted for posting something they didn't even know was an offence, and that is just on 1 topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Of course. Nothing new really. Twitter is a medium too.
    The AG is offering advice to help posters, not making new law, or trying to stop personal (if offensive) comment - this is not a restriction on our legal freedom.
    For enforcement overseas, go to the local court - many do this.
    The internet is not really anonymous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    People are free to say whatever they like as long as they don't break the law by saying it.

    If that is too difficult for some people to understand then so be it but ignorance is never a good defence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    It's like we can't do anything upfront on the net any more.. We have to pay £3 a month for a decent VPN to access torrent sites and the way it's going we will have use said VPN to create an alias in some other country to open a facebook account to protect ourselves from prosecution should we inadvertantly post something we shouldn't! So much for a free country eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    The super rich are scared we will still be thinking the worst of them so they are scaring the poor with being taken to court!

    Nothing new there then!

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    20yrs ago laws changed to allow increased freedom of speech and open courts better public scrutiny

    Now you must cause “a substantial risk that the course of justice .... will be seriously impeded or prejudiced” to be guilty

    These are strong words, only a very exceptional tweet is likely to come close.

    The BBC is utterly wrong to confuse this with the liability for naming a protected person.

  • Comment number 39.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Strange how the USA can be more transparent than England on court trials and yet we can`t.We`ve had people saying stupid things taken to court and found "not guilty".We had a working class lad sent to prison for a " riot "tweet and his retraction ingnored.A middle class lad calls his bomb tweet a joke and the nations comic lovies come to his aide.
    Council estate or grammer school?Two faced!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I think that it a naive approach, maybe a court has to realize that it is now in the 21st century, it might have been able to gag written and even tv media etc but can it really take on the internet ? The size of the problem and the fact that these new media go well beyond country boundaries means that it now limited in what it can do.Could a UK court really stop someone in another country ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    12. any1
    Everyone needs to get a fair hearing and the innocent should be protected.
    If public discussion of the case is a problem, wouldn't insulating the few in court be more effective than censoring those outside it?

    I view any attempt to limit what I may or may not see, say or write with deep distrust.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    @33 on average there's 500 million tweets a day on twitter, another one who does not know how the net works....500 million eh? moderate that !

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    @22 "Only if you have infiority comlex you MUST post anything of your useless life on twitter and facebook and other waste of time services..."

    do you not see the irony... complain about other people wasting time then go and do it your self here. there's no standard like a double standard eh ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    If only there was an 8 minute pre-moderated queue on Twitter

    so much pain and anguish

    (not to mention indiscrete revelations of names in court cases)

    could be avoided.

    With you on this one BBC HYS


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