The UK’s Attorney General is pondering whether to tighten up contempt of court laws and target Facebook and Twitter users who comment about live criminal trials.
In a call for evidence made this morning, Jeremy Wright, QC, MP, asked for examples of court cases “in which social media has had an impact” to be forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office.
He is concerned that the Contempt of Court Act 1981 does not “protect against trials by social media”, mainly because very few of the general public know anything about the law.
“Every defendant in this country is entitled to a fair trial where a verdict is delivered based on the evidence heard in court,” said Wright in a canned statement, describing the Contempt of Court Act as “designed to prevent trial by media”.
“The evidence submitted to this Call for Evidence will form the basis of a report prepared by the Attorney General’s Office and inform a consideration of what changes, if any, are needed to strike a balance between the rights of the individual to express their views via social media and the protection of fairness in criminal proceedings,” said a government statement.
In 2013, a 21-year-old juror, Kasim Davey of Palmers Green, north London, wrote on Facebook: “Woooow I wasn’t expecting to be in a jury Deciding a paedophile’s fate, I’ve always wanted to Fuck up a paedophile & now I’m within the law!”
Someone told the legal system; the jury was discharged; and Davey was jailed for two months.
Similarly, a juror in a fraud case, Joseph Beard, 29, researched it on Google and then told fellow jurors what he had found; he was also jailed for two months.
A previous Lord Chief Justice, the excellently named Lord Igor Judge, has said before: “The misuse of the internet represents a threat to the jury system.”
It is a contempt of court, punishable by a two-year prison sentence, to publish anything that causes a substantial risk of serious prejudice to court proceedings. This includes things such as the defendant’s previous crimes. The rough idea is that the defendant should be tried on the facts of the case rather than his or her personal history. The contempt risk is supposed to be judged on the likelihood of jurors (or potential jurors) being able to find information about a case that is not presented in court, though in the internet era courts take a harsh line about appearance of that information anywhere at all.
Contempt of court laws kick in on the occasions set out in schedule 1 of the Contempt of Court Act. These are:
- arrest without warrant;
- the issue, or in Scotland the grant, of a warrant for arrest;
- the issue of a summons to appear, or in Scotland the grant of a warrant to cite;
- the service of an indictment or other document specifying the charge;
- except in Scotland, oral charge;
- the re-opening of a criminal case after new evidence emerges or an appeal is filed
While the general public generally has no way of knowing when proceedings have become active before a case appears in court, the news media used to maintain links with police press offices who would be aware of when arrests were made or police employees had applied for a warrant. In the years since the Leveson Inquiry, however, some police forces, including London’s Metropolitan Police, have stopped confirming when proceedings have become active.
Contempt of court can also be committed by defying or ignoring a judicial order, as Home Secretary Amber Rudd seems about to learn the hard way.