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Contempt laws should be brought into the online age

New consultation to look at effect of the internet on jury trial

28 November 2012

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Contempt laws should be brought into the age of online information, the Law Commission has suggested in a consultation starting today, amid growing concern over the effect of the internet on jury trial.

The range of proposals the commission is putting forward include the possibility for judges to require news organisations to take down historical content that could be prejudicial to a trial and a new offence of intentionally seeking information relevant to a case.

The consultation will look at 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”, according to law commissioner professor David Ormerod.

It comes on the back of a series of cases bringing into sharp relief the potentially disruptive impact of the internet on jury trials, most notably the case of Theodora Dallas in January 2012.

Such cases, the commission said, showed the law as it stands presented “serious shortcomings”.

A juror at Luton Crown Court in July 2011, former university lecturer Dallas received a six-month prison sentence for contempt of court after it emerged she researched the defendants’ background on the internet.

Just six months earlier, another juror, Joanne Fraill, was jailed for eight months by the Lord Chief Justice for contacting a defendant via Facebook after her trial but while the jury was still sitting in the case of another defendant.

The Attorney General said at the time contempt proceedings against Dallas were brought that the jury on which she was sitting had been warned about researching the case on the internet, with specific reference to the Fraill case.

Sentencing Dallas, Lord Judge said a custodial sentence was “virtually inevitable” for misuse of the internet by juror. On 30 January, the Supreme Court rejected Dallas’s appeal.

Professor Ormerod, who is leading the project, said the commission will be “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.”

“Once information has been released on the web, it is very hard to contain,” the consultation says. “And, unless steps are taken to remove it, it remains easily available to anyone with access to the internet in a way that is not true of printed materials.”

Safeguards would look at preventing jurors retrieving potentially prejudicial material during the course of a trial, irrespective of when it was published.

They include giving jurors “more in-depth, specific education about their responsibility not to seek out information on the defendant”, a new offence of “intentionally seeking information relevant to the case they are trying”, and granting the courts “statutory powers to require media organisations and others to take down potentially prejudicial content first published before proceedings became active”.

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