Internet no excuse for contempt of court

Old Bailey, from photo by Adam Dimmick, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licenceThere has been a spate of cases recently of jurors in criminal trials being themselves jailed for acting inappropriately. A number of jurors have been found guilty of researching cases or suspects online, others have used social media such as Facebook to post comments about or even contact the person whose case they were hearing. There was even one juror who phoned in sick in order to go to the theatre.

Today it was the case of Dr Theodora Dallas, who was jailed for not only finding out online that the defendant had previously been charged with another offence, but then going on to share that fact with the other jurors hearing the case. This is despite the trial judge and other court officials warning jurors not to do any background reading about the case, and specifically warning them not to do research on the internet.

Now, Dr Dallas is presumably an intelligent woman, given that she was a lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire, so you would have thought that when the judge said don’t look things up online, she would have known not to do that, and even if she did inadvertently see some information while looking for something else, she should have kept it to herself. She claimed to have been looking up the meaning of GBH, but of course the correct way to find the meaning of legal terms would be to ask the court staff. Her claim not to have understood instructions due to a poor grasp of English is shocking too: how can she fairly reach a verdict if she might not understand all the evidence? It hadn’t occurred to me that foreign citizens with sub-standard English might find themselves on a jury.

It’s extremely important that defendants receive a fair trial. While it may seem harsh to jail someone for contempt of court, it’s worth remembering that a trial biased by inadmissible evidence could result in someone innocent being jailed for considerably longer. Alternatively, it could cause a trial to collapse, resulting in either a retrial at significant cost to the taxpayer, or a criminal being set free, at the expense of the victim.

Some people have suggested that the current rules for jurors are outdated in the age of the internet, and unworkable or unenforceable. I disagree with this assertion. Just because technology makes it easier to do something doesn’t mean it automatically becomes right. The invention of television didn’t mean that it was suddenly OK for jurors in high-profile cases to watch coverage of the trial. Nor should the internet or social media make it all right to do background research. It’s quite easy to go home and use the internet to e-mail, contact friends on Facebook, do some research for work, etc., but avoid looking up the case, just as it’s possible to watch a soap or the football on TV without watching the News at Ten. Other than telling people not to do it, and jailing anyone who steps out of line, how do you control it? If you keep jurors shut up in a hotel for the duration of the trial with no access to the internet, that is rather harsh on the majority who would not be tempted to research the case – and acting as a juror is arduous and inconvenient for those people called for duty as it is without that. Scrapping jury trials is hardly desirable, either.

Hopefully the recent high-profile cases where people have been jailed for contempt will serve as a warning to jurors in the future, and enable us to retain this important part of the justice system, even in the 21st century.

2 responses to “Internet no excuse for contempt of court”

  1. Matt Andrews

    Good post – thanks for this.

    I have to confess my ignorance here: I had no idea they couldn’t “research” the suspect during the trial. This is mostly because I assumed that such a rule would have become unenforceable in the modern, internet-enabled world. Even if you don’t deliberately look for information, it finds you. Obviously her going on to share it with the other jurors was a questionable decision, but I imagine in her mind, she felt conflicted: what if it turned out this guy was allowed off when in fact he’d committed violent crime and was a threat? People are intimidated by the legal system and are just trying to do their best.

    None of that is an excuse to just drop the law — I agree. But it seems to me that the court system needs to legislate to acknowledge that information is much more freely available than in the past. Look at the case of Chris Jefferies, Jo Yeates’ landlord. If you were in a jury examining him, you wouldn’t have been able to avoid the tabloids and news sites covering his apparent “guilt”. Again, this doesn’t mean that we do away with the rules concerning contempt of court, but I think we need to find a way to recognise the global nature of information and the changing legal landscape (tweeting in court, for example). Punishing this woman with jail time might have been the only option, but that won’t stop this becoming more common, in my opinion.

  2. Jonathan

    There are certainly lots of issues with the jury system, not least that it’s intimidating as you say, and often people lose out financially when they are called for duty. (Although that chap was obviously wrong to lie about illness so he could see a musical, it’s unfair that someone who had paid for tickets would receive no compensation.)

    As for Chris Jefferies, the newspapers should not have printed a lot of the stuff they said, and indeed two newspapers were convicted of contempt of court. And the true killer Tabak was convicted without the jury having knowledge of his previous activities.

    I certainly don’t see a problem with people tweeting in court, though, as long as they are only reporting the evidence that was presented in court, and not speculation or the confidential deliberations of the jury room.

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