Lord Chief Justice warns juries over internet research

Joanne Fraill, Jamie Sewart arriving at the High Court on 14 June 2011
Image caption Joanne Fraill (left) initiated the Facebook exchanges with acquitted defendant

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales has warned that the integrity of trials may be damaged by the internet and modern technology.

Lord Judge said he was concerned at how easy it had become for jurors to research cases despite orders in court not to do so.

In the past year judges have dealt with four cases of jury misbehaviour, two involving online activity.

Judges have quashed convictions in three and ordered two retrials.

Earlier this year, a Manchester woman became the first juror to be jailed for contacting a defendant via Facebook.

In the Court of Appeal's criminal cases annual report, Lord Judge said: "I remain concerned at the ease with which a member of the jury can, by disobeying the judge's instructions, discover material which purports to contain accurate information relevant to an individual case or an individual.

"I am also concerned that the use of technology enables those who are not members of the jury to communicate, in both directions. In the context of current technology, we must be astute to preserve the integrity of jury trial and the jury system."

The Lord Chief Justice has allowed journalists to use online services in court, such as Twitter, because of the role that the internet now plays in reporting the news.

But during the past year, senior judges have dealt with two instances in which jurors have taken to the internet, ignoring guidance from judges in their trials to return verdicts based solely on the evidence heard in court.

Image caption Lord Judge: Concerned about integrity of system

Manchester juror Joanne Frail, who had a Facebook conversation with a defendant in the trial she was hearing, was jailed for eight months after admitting contempt of court.

In another case concerning kidnapping, the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial after it emerged that two jurors had gone online to conduct their own research into the case. At the outset of the trial, the judge had reminded the jury not to use Google or social media networks.

A third case of ignoring judge's directions occurred when a defendant and jurors were found to have chatted in a pub opposite Birmingham Crown Court while the case was still continuing. One of the jurors later said he had been confused by the judge's order that he should not speak to anybody about the case.

The fourth case of misbehaviour involved allegations of bullying in the jury room at Lewes Crown Court, prompting the Court of Appeal to rule the conviction that resulted from their deliberations was unsafe. At one point, the judge called the jury into court to advise them on how to listen to each other's opinions.

Last month, the Attorney General was given permission by senior judges to prosecute another alleged case of online research by a juror.

Separate academic research suggests that up to 12% of jurors could be turning to the internet in big trials.

The annual report reveals that there were almost 7,000 applications to the Court of Appeal's criminal division during 2010-11, a slight fall on the previous year.

Just over one-fifth of applications were to appeal against conviction, the rest being against the length of a sentence. The low rate of appeals showed that people could have confidence in the system, said Lord Judge.

The Attorney General successfully appealed to have sentences increased in 82 of the 101 cases he sent to the Court of Appeal.

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