Facebook contempt trial begins tomorrow
13 June 2011
Tomorrow sees the beginning of a contempt of court prosecution against a juror who allegedly communicated on the social networking site Facebook with a defendant who had already been acquitted.
The co-editor of this blog, Angus McCullough QC, is representing the Attorney General in the case; he is not the writer of this post. Isabel McArdle has already posted on the case – for background, see Silence please: A Facebook contempt of court – allegedly.
Deliberations of a jury must remain confidential. Section 8(1) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 provides,
… it is a contempt of court to obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinions expressed, arguments advanced or votes cast by members of the jury in the course of their deliberations in any legal proceedings.
For more on contempt, including tips for avoiding it when blogging or tweeting about ongoing trials, see my post Avoiding contempt of court: tips for bloggers and tweeters.
As Isabel wrote in her post, Joanne Fraill was a member of a jury in a large and complex drugs case. She is alleged to have used Facebook to contact a person who had already been acquitted in the trial, while the jury was still considering verdicts in relation to the other defendants. She is also accused of having used the internet to do research relating to the trial. The acquitted defendant, Jamie Sewart, is also facing contempt proceedings, being accused of soliciting information from Ms Fraill about the jury’s deliberations while it was still considering verdicts in relation to some defendants.
The case has been generating some interesting commentary. The Times have apparently found over 40 examples of jurors posting messages on Facebook which could lead to contempt proceedings, and even found one user posting an online poll to assess the outcome of the case.
Christopher Kinch QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association told the newspaper that the situation is a “potential time-bomb” for the jury system, and “Left unchecked, we could move towards trial by X-factor-type online polling; or jurors might find themselves put under pressure by correspondents online.”
According to The Telegraph, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge is expected to issue “tough new” guidelines on internet use by jurors. That sounds sensible to protect the trial system, but also from the jurors’ perspective it is important that the rules are clear and unambiguous. That said, some jurors may still choose to ignore them. After all, the judge in this case gave a warning not to use the internet to research the trial.
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