Jurors could face new Contempt of Court crime

 
Juror Theodora Dallas University lecturer Theodora Dallas was given a jail sentence for online research

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Jurors who deliberately research a case online should face criminal charges, the government’s law reform body for England and Wales says.

Currently judges set out what jurors in individual cases must not do and those breaking the rules can be jailed by the civil courts for contempt of court.

The Law Commission says this leads to inconsistency and confusion - it wants Parliament to set out standard rules for jurors and make breaches a crime.

Ministers will now discuss the plans.

Professor David Ormerod, the law commissioner heading the contempt project, said: "Members of the jury would know the rules, the wrongdoing would be prosecuted in the same way as other crimes, and jurors accused of contempt would benefit from the normal protections of the criminal trial process."

School lessons

Other recommendations made in the commission's report include:

  • Giving judges statutory powers to remove internet-enabled devices from jurors
  • Teaching school children about the role and importance of jury service
  • Amending the current oath taken by jurors to include an agreement to base the verdict only on evidence presented in court and not to seek or disclose evidence about the case

The commission also says jurors should be clearly protected to allow them to speak out if they have suspicions of wrongdoing that only emerge after a case has finished.

Analysis

The current law of contempt seeks to preserve not only the sanctity of the jury room, but the sanctity of each individual juror's mind for the entire duration of the trial, from the polluting effects of prejudicial material. And it seeks to do that in an age in which jurors can access that material instantly, online via a bewildering range of internet-enabled devices.

Some will feel that clarifying or beefing up the law of contempt smacks of King Canute trying to hold back the tide of information technology. Many say that it is time to take a different approach whereby the judge gives the jury a strong direction to try the case only on the evidence put before them in court.

However, the danger of jurors being exposed to prejudicial material is real. If a juror reads it online, and the court is unaware, the material cannot be tested in court. That is why the Law Commission's proposals are geared to maintain the law of contempt and keep criminal trials free of prejudicial material.

There is also a proposal to create an exception to the ban on asking jurors about their deliberations so approved researchers can investigate how juries reach decisions.

The Law Commission would also like to see Contempt of Court laws changed to avoid pursuing the media for material published before a trial.

This would include news reports detailing allegations about people who had not been arrested or charged at the time of publication.

Rape allegation

Responding to the report, Attorney General Dominic Grieve said: "Juror contempt is a serious risk to justice but people are often not aware of the consequences."

He hoped the proposal to make it an offence for jurors to search for information about their case online would reduce the need for future prosecutions, he added.

The report comes after a number of jurors have faced proceedings for contempt.

In January last year, university lecturer Dr Theodora Dallas was jailed for six months after telling fellow jurors that she had discovered the defendant in their case had once been accused of rape.

Last week, the 36-year-old from Luton - who claimed the judge’s instructions had not been clear - said she would take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

 
Dominic Casciani Article written by Dominic Casciani Dominic Casciani Home affairs correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 449.

    At start of the jury system, members of the jury were supposed to decide solely on their own knowledge and were not allowed to be presented with information in the court. It was only gradually over several centuries that it changed to that they could only ONLY decide on what the two, duelling, lawyers chose to put to them. It might be time to revisit that - too many miscarriages of justice?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 448.

    I'm left wondering who on earth would want to be on a jury, I wouldn't be at all happy with a judge "taking away" my phone Tablets and PC's Their my livelihood, and my hobby, Perhaps jurors could be gagged, blindfolded and locked away so they wouldn't know what is being said in the World - get real here just because its in the papers (or on the BBC!) doesn't mean its true.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 447.

    446 Baffled. The link doesnt help much. It doesn't say why skimming the internet is wrong. Just that it is illegal.

    I think internetting by jurors is wrong because the evidence isn't accountable as it would be if a barrrister put it forward in court. Not that a barrister would...

    Comments?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 446.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 445.

    The Trial By Your Peers idea is far from new but what we have now is far better than it was 200 years ago when you were tried by a jury of the landed gentry who were more likely to find you guilty regardless. Picking people at random from across society is still better than that surely? And to answer the question about juries in lockdown: in some high profile trials, this is exactly what happens.

 

Comments 5 of 449

 

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