The Attorney-General, has announced new guidelines to reduce the risk of contempt of court through careless use of social media platforms such as Twitter. To date, comments via social media on live proceedings have resulted in fair trials being threatened and anonymity orders being jeopardised. An extreme example arose in 2011 when a juror was sent to jail for contempt of court after contacting a defendant in a drugs conspiracy trial in Manchester through Facebook.
The use of Twitter by the media in Court Rooms has been permitted for some time. Problems arise when other Twitter users respond to those tweets and link to prejudicial material. If a user has many followers or the material receives substantial publicity, that information could be seen by those involved in the trial (including the jury).
Contempt of Court occurs where conduct is likely to interfere with the course of justice, regardless of intent. Whilst it is presumed that Judges will not be influenced by tweets or any media, it is not the same for jurors.
Clarity will be good. At least Twitter users will be clear on what they can do. Users have seen with the recent Lord McAlpine case some of the risks they face.
We have yet to see what the guidance will say. Let’s hope it is clear. The main thing must be to ensure fair trials. People’s liberty is at stake after all and if commentators get it wrong and put too much information in the public domain, trials get prejudiced and criminals get off scot free.