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
    +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
    +61

    Comment number 7.

    Assuming most cases start the same, when i did my jury service the judge made it VERY clear what was accpetable for a juror to do and what wasn't. Regardless if you think its right or wrong, no-one has anyone but themselves to blame if they are caught doing something they are explicitly warned against doing

  • 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
    +48

    Comment number 76.

    My own jury service identifed the problem of fellow jurors who had little interest in the case as opposed to too much! Their short attention span and ready willingness in the jury room to follow others lead while moaning about the time we were wasting upset me.
    Jurors must be willing to serve - not just compelled and - controversially - perhaps pass some sort of aptitude or IQ test first?

  • 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!

 

Comments 5 of 449

 

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