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Thursday, 16 June 2011

Is Facebook contempt case just the tip of the iceberg?

Juror Joanne Fraill was jailed for 8 months today after admitting one charge of contempt of court when if was discovered that she contacted defendant Jamie Sewart.  BBC has the full story.

For a while now I've been raising the issue of judicial secrecy having potentially undesirable unintended consequences.  Firstly, Fraill was jailed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, without a jury trial.  There was even speculation the contempt hearing could have been heard in secret, although this was not the case.

We don't know how widespread the problem is; is Frail just the one that got caught, whilst countless other offences go undetected? Yet because it's a criminal offence under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 for anyone to solicit any information from a juror about any case we may never know whether there is a problem or not.

I've previously mentioned the issue of sub judice in relation to freedom of speech.  The ideal that a court can control how information is presented, so that all evidence can properly be examined, is a noble attempt to prevent "trial by media" that can occur in countries like the US with almost non-existant sub judice protection.

But the internet, access to overseas media who are not bound by UK rules and to defendants' personal blogs and/or social websites raises the possibility that jurors are frequently disobeying instruction not to use the internet to research the case.

Maybe it's become unrealistic to believe we can control information relating to a trial, in which case, wouldn't it be better to acknowledge this, rather than pretend that all is well; and, in burying our heads, end up blind to potential miscarriages of justice?

Also, we can't know the extent of the problem whilst it remains a criminal offence to talk to jurors about a trial.


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