Contempt of court in the age of the internet — by James Lewis QC and Guy Ladenburg
On 19 December last year, the Law Commission published the first of its three reports into contempt of court, ‘Juror misconduct and internet publications’. The report addressed what the Law Commission perceives to be the most pressing issue facing the safe administration of justice: the maintenance of public confidence that jury trials are decided upon the evidence heard in court and not on extraneous material found on the internet. The brisk march of technology has prompted the proposal of a series of new measures designed to safeguard the administration of justice, which has been included in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill 2014, currently before Parliament.
Before the rise of the internet, it usually required a good deal of initiative and industry on the part of a juror to obtain extraneous information to assist his deliberations. Juries are now prone to more pervasive temptations to yield to their curiosity. At the same time, instantaneous publication of material over social networks presents greater risks to the administration of justice.
The Law Commission observed an unsatisfactory state of affairs in relation to jury contempt, and was concerned that jurors may still be unclear about what they are not allowed to do, or are otherwise unwilling to abide by the prohibitions. Although the Crown Court Bench Book offers guidance and an illustration in respect of directing the jury not to conduct extraneous research, judges administering such directions do not have a specific prescribed form of words to deliver, with the result that the scope of any offence of contempt may depend on what exact words the judge used, and the Divisional Court would have to establish what exactly the judge said to the contemnor in each case…
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