Criminal Law | Contempt Laws Under Consultation

The Law Commission launched a consultation yesterday on the effectiveness of the contempt laws inEnglandandWalesnow that so many people use social media and blogs.

Although the law, which dates back to 1981, currently includes tweets and blogs, along with other social media, many do not think it can adequately prevent jurors from being prejudiced by online material.

A recent case of assault, involving juror Theodora Dallas, exposed the limitations in the legislation.  In January, Ms Dallas was convicted and imprisoned for six months after she sought information on a defendant’s past from the internet.

When she got the results of the research, she told other jurors that the suspect had faced accusations of rape before.  However, the law forbids jurors from researching anything related to the case online, although a study in 2010 revealed that 12 per cent of jurors in cases that had a lot of media attention admitted to breaching this.

The main problem with material found on the internet, is that, apart from being potentially prejudicial, it cannot be challenged by the defendant in court, as he or she does not even know that it is in the mind of the juror.

The Law Commission is asking what safeguards can be put in place to prevent jurors searching for and being able to find potentially prejudicial information during the course of a trial.

One suggestion the Commission is testing is that jurors could be subject to a new offence of intentionally seeking information relevant to the case they are trying, while another is for the courts to be given statutory powers requiring media organisations and others to take down potentially prejudicial content that has been published before proceedings become active.

The consultation runs until 28 February next year.

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Nigel is the Managing Partner and Head of Litigation and Dispute Resolution in the London office of Mackrell Turner Garrett.