As a result of recent, high profile, instances of contempt by jurors, amendments have been made to the statutory regime for juror contempt by the introduction of Sections 68-77 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. The principal effect of this legislation has been to create specific criminal offences to deal with contempt by jurors.
Prior to the implementation of this Act, juror contempt was held on a statutory footing under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
However, the regime provided by the Contempt of Court Act 1981 was civil rather than criminal and hearings would take place in the Divisional Court (in the Court’s summary capacity). Whilst civil contempt under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 could carry a sentence of imprisonment, it did not amount to a criminal offence. The increasing number of contempt proceedings indicated that either jurors did not understand their role and responsibilities; or that that were willing to flout the rules as they did not take the threat of being “held in contempt” sufficiently seriously.
The Law Commission Report “Contempt of Court (1): Juror Misconduct and Internet Publications” considered the effect of juror contempt on the justice system, the costs involved and potential solutions to an increasingly prevalent problem.
As a result of the research carried out, the Law Commission recommended the creation of new criminal offences to address the increasing trend of proceedings for contempt of court against jurors.
The specific offences introduced by this legislation include:
- Research by jurors;
- Prohibited conduct;
- Sharing research with other jurors;
- Disclosing a jury’s deliberation.
There is also a new statutory power for a Judge to direct the surrender of electronic communications device for the duration of a hearing.
The practical effect of the amendments to juror contempt legislation is that the conduct that constitutes contempt is now more clearly delineated. In theory, this may make it easier for Judges to explain to jurors and for jurors to understand the serious implications of failing to abide by their duties.
In addition, this now means that the new offences relating to juror contempt will take place as a trial on indictment, in the Crown Court, before a Judge and Jury, rather than before a Judge sitting in the Divisional Court. This will also mean that Judges will now have a wider range of sentences available at their disposal, such as Community Orders or Suspended Sentence Orders.
It is anticipated that this will make it easier for the Police to investigate alleged offences and for the CPS to prosecute cases and therefore should result in a quicker and more cost effective method of dealing with these cases.
Importantly, the legislation also creates safeguards and specific defences to some of the criminal offences.
It is hoped that the more formalised creation of specific criminal offences will enable jurors to be better informed about their responsibilities as custodians of justice. It should also mean that jurors will be more alive to the serious consequences of failing to adhere to the laws relating to jurors. This in turn should result in fewer trials are abandoned as a result of juror misconduct. This is clearly a laudable aim.
However, there is also a risk of an increase in cases being pursued against jurors as a result of electronic communications (and particularly social media). The irony is that this legislation is supposed to make the law clearer to jurors - with a view to reducing the instances of this issue occurring, but instead, this may become an increasingly prevalent problem. Yet, on balance, it is likely that any increase in cases being pursued against jurors would be as a result of the more widespread use of technology, rather than as a result of the introduction of this legislation. This is principally because, in most cases, the misconduct of jurors would have been caught by the Contempt of Court Act 1981 in any event.
Although this legislation may be perceived as placing jurors in a position whether they may be prosecuted for performing a civic duty, it is perhaps better seen as a black letter warning which outlines the criminal offences that can be committed as a result of juror misconduct, and as a result, removes any ambiguity as to the ramifications of misconduct.