Jurors could face new Contempt of Court crime

 
Juror Theodora Dallas University lecturer Theodora Dallas was given a jail sentence for online research

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Jurors who deliberately research a case online should face criminal charges, the government’s law reform body for England and Wales says.

Currently judges set out what jurors in individual cases must not do and those breaking the rules can be jailed by the civil courts for contempt of court.

The Law Commission says this leads to inconsistency and confusion - it wants Parliament to set out standard rules for jurors and make breaches a crime.

Ministers will now discuss the plans.

Professor David Ormerod, the law commissioner heading the contempt project, said: "Members of the jury would know the rules, the wrongdoing would be prosecuted in the same way as other crimes, and jurors accused of contempt would benefit from the normal protections of the criminal trial process."

School lessons

Other recommendations made in the commission's report include:

  • Giving judges statutory powers to remove internet-enabled devices from jurors
  • Teaching school children about the role and importance of jury service
  • Amending the current oath taken by jurors to include an agreement to base the verdict only on evidence presented in court and not to seek or disclose evidence about the case

The commission also says jurors should be clearly protected to allow them to speak out if they have suspicions of wrongdoing that only emerge after a case has finished.

Analysis

The current law of contempt seeks to preserve not only the sanctity of the jury room, but the sanctity of each individual juror's mind for the entire duration of the trial, from the polluting effects of prejudicial material. And it seeks to do that in an age in which jurors can access that material instantly, online via a bewildering range of internet-enabled devices.

Some will feel that clarifying or beefing up the law of contempt smacks of King Canute trying to hold back the tide of information technology. Many say that it is time to take a different approach whereby the judge gives the jury a strong direction to try the case only on the evidence put before them in court.

However, the danger of jurors being exposed to prejudicial material is real. If a juror reads it online, and the court is unaware, the material cannot be tested in court. That is why the Law Commission's proposals are geared to maintain the law of contempt and keep criminal trials free of prejudicial material.

There is also a proposal to create an exception to the ban on asking jurors about their deliberations so approved researchers can investigate how juries reach decisions.

The Law Commission would also like to see Contempt of Court laws changed to avoid pursuing the media for material published before a trial.

This would include news reports detailing allegations about people who had not been arrested or charged at the time of publication.

Rape allegation

Responding to the report, Attorney General Dominic Grieve said: "Juror contempt is a serious risk to justice but people are often not aware of the consequences."

He hoped the proposal to make it an offence for jurors to search for information about their case online would reduce the need for future prosecutions, he added.

The report comes after a number of jurors have faced proceedings for contempt.

In January last year, university lecturer Dr Theodora Dallas was jailed for six months after telling fellow jurors that she had discovered the defendant in their case had once been accused of rape.

Last week, the 36-year-old from Luton - who claimed the judge’s instructions had not been clear - said she would take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

 
Dominic Casciani, Home affairs correspondent Article written by Dominic Casciani Dominic Casciani Home affairs correspondent

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  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 29.

    Sounds good, but what if a juror has specialist knowledge relevant to the case? eg in an case involving a RTA you know the road better than the defence lawyer. The point is knowledge doesn't just come from online sources.

    Obviously knowing something personal about the defendant is a completely different matter.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 28.

    Professional juries.
    Have a walk down your local high street and consider whether the first 12 people you see are going to be reliable if you are ever on trial.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 27.

    Suppose the court fails to explain an obscure detail - perhaps the nature of the defendant's niche occupation in a fraud trial. It's assumed that I understand what (say) an Internal Rate Assessor is, but I might be committing a crime if I look it up on wikipedia. I see the motivation, but 'twould leave me nervy, as a juror.

  • rate this
    -12

    Comment number 26.

    I think the whole jury duty thing should be abandoned and replaced with professional jurors. I wouldn't my freedom to be considered by the unwashed, ignorant masses. "The jury system puts a ban upon intelligence and honesty, and a premium upon ignorance, stupidity and perjury" - Mark Twain.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 25.

    This should have been implemented years ago.

    Jurors are to assess the evidence and facts before them. Therefore instead of trial by media it is closer to the "Innocent until proven guilty". Allowing defense and prosecution to put their best arguments forwards.

    Jurors frankly should not be allowed out of a hotel while the case is ongoing and outside communication cut off. Consider it a holiday.

  • rate this
    -11

    Comment number 24.

    Cameron "Mr Russia/Chinese presidents, I would like to complain about your countrys arresting people, imprisoning them, restricting their movements & freedoms without due legal process, on the basis of "national security" protection.

    "Oops, was I supposed to say that, erm, I mean, we're evens stephens on that, how about talking about contempt of court instead", now thats where we DO differ

  • rate this
    +73

    Comment number 23.

    People who are complaining about this: how would you feel if you were wrongly jailed because jurors had read unsubstantiated claims about you online? All it takes is a little self control on the part of jurors. Simply don't look at anything involving the trial. Do something else in the evening. If it's really just curiosity, do your searching after the verdict has been reached.

  • rate this
    -13

    Comment number 22.

    typical lecturer all brain and no sense

  • rate this
    +32

    Comment number 21.

    @17 - I thought you had to decide based on the evidence presented in court, which is why you are also told not to discuss the case outside of the jury room. Hearsay is a dangerous thing in a trial, as was shown by the dozy girl who was charged with Contempt for texting a woman on another case to say that the defendant was a peodophile. The internet does not always have the right answers.

  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 20.

    10.

    No one in the juror's house should know what case the juror is assigned to.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 19.

    Based on the dumbing down of the UK population and breathtaking stupidity of swathes of the British public we should be seriously questioning how people are selected for jury service, or indeed whether juries are valid in this day and age.

    I would give it just 10 yrs before you dial in your 'premium line' verdict just like most Saturday night TV programmes - "May the lord have mercy." etc

  • rate this
    -36

    Comment number 18.

    This is unworkable - and the Law Commission knows it.No institution relishes losing its monoploy,but the legal profession and the administration of justice,whether they like it or not,will have to accept that people are free to carry out research.It is the loss of control that so exercises their minds.

  • rate this
    -56

    Comment number 17.

    Personally I'd rather trust my own research into something and form my own opinion based on what I think is right or wrong or proved/disproved...or perhaps even the law which is something that changes to suit itself than have to listen to lawyers arguments...they are in it for the money and nothing else and the judge usually directs in the direction he wants you to go.

  • rate this
    +35

    Comment number 16.

    Not everything on the Internet is reliable. If someone looks something up which isn't correct it could lead to them being prejudiced one way or the other. If advised what is and isn't acceptable before a case then if someone is later found to have done something they shouldn't then there can't really be any defence.

  • rate this
    -17

    Comment number 15.

    "Juror contempt is a serious risk to justice but people are often not aware of the consequences."

    Lol, biggest risk to justice, is the already implemented system wherby individuals are denied justice via judicial system & imprisoned in homes & movements restricted.

    We NEED to find a way to ensure/maintain justice & not abandon it for Stalanist "national interest" reasons

  • rate this
    +60

    Comment number 14.

    Do we really want Trial by Google? The last time I did jury service, we were told not to go online, or look at any media, relating to the trial. I am surprised it isn't already contempt of court to do this.

  • rate this
    +47

    Comment number 13.

    Good. The rules surrounding jury duty are in need of an update. With something as important as this the last thing you'd want is your fate being determined by what some people might've said on twitter!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 12.

    Anyone who has done jury service knows one does not hear all the evidence in court & some questions screaming for answers are ignored by both sides in the case. One is therefore not deciding guilt or innocence but expressing an opinion based in prejudice. Lawyers certainly get easy money in most cases. I have been a juror 3 times.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 11.

    "Giving judges statutory powers to remove internet-enabled devices from jurors"

    So if I'm self employed and run a web based business you are going to ban me from checking my servers and shut me down for the duration of the trail?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 10.

    How are they going to stop someone else in a juror's household from Googling?

 

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