Thursday, July 15, 2010

Texting jurors and the Contempt of Court Act

So, you're on your final hours of jury duty. You've heard the closing arguments, the judge has summed up and now along with your fellow jurors you're seated in the jury room beginning your deliberations.

Then the judge pops his head round the door and points to a box in the middle of the table.

"Erm, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in that box there's lots of information about this case which I've ruled inadmissible, or it's been kept out because of legal restrictions. Just don't look in it ok? Thanks a lot."

You look at one another, one of you whispers that surely a peek wouldn't hurt, another says you might get into trouble with the judge if you look. The judge's head appears round the door again and he says: "Oh, if you do look and keep schtum about it, there's nothing we can do, we can't even ask you if you looked after you've reached a verdict."

This about sums up the attitude of the courts to the internet and jurors. They are warned not to look, not to conduct their own Google-investigations. But unless a juror is reported for bringing in material by another juror, there's no way the courts can 'detect' such practices. Indeed the Contempt of Court Act 1981 forbids anyone, even a Royal Commission on Justice, from even asking jurors how they reached their verdicts - eg, did you reach it as a result of evidence, or did Wikipedia give you a helping hand?

This week we have seen the latest use by a juror of technology. A teenage juror texted another on the same trial to give a running commentary on evidence, as reported here in The Guardian's new Law section.

The recipient of the text reported the matter, both were discharged, and the texter was given a suspended sentence, showing how seriously the courts take these matters.

This is something I've been pointing out for some time now. While the print media in particular, broadcasters too though they generally do less court reporting, are all under dire warnings of the dangers of contempt, very little is known of what jurors do when they sit at home in the warm glow of their laptop.

An indication of just what is available was shown in the 2004 trial of David Bieber, who stood trial and was later convicted of the murder of PC Ian Broadhurst, and the attempted murder of two other officers.

I was teaching in Newcastle, where the trial took place, and seeing the police presence outside the court, Googled 'David Bieber.'

Now, before the results, I should mention that the reporters in court were told not to mention anything about Bieber's background, previous offences. His photgraph was banned too as 'identity was at issues' - ie he was claiming he didn't shoot the officers, a mysterious Mr X had done so - I know, this goes some way to explaining his conviction.

Top of the Google results was a site called America's Most Wanted which helpfully informed a viewer that Bieber, aka Nathan Wayne Coleman, was on the run for a suspected murder in Florida. It also carried his police mugshot.

If I were a trial judge I would be far more concerned about the Googling or texting juror than the court reporter sitting on the Press bench.

There's an interesting paper by Prof Michael Bromby of Glasgow Caledonian University.

The last government announced that it would conduct research into juries and how they reached their verdicts. It is to be hoped the present government continues this research. It might come to the conclusion that the Contempt of Court Act, enacted almost 30 years ago - long before the internet, Twitter, Facebook and blogs - is long overdue some revision.

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