The attorney general has questioned whether current contempt of court legislation offers sufficient protection against 'trials by social media', issuing a call for evidence. The Law Society welcomed the call - while warning of the need to balance the right of a fair trial with that of freedom of expression.
Jeremy Wright QC MP is seeking 'expert' input on whether the increasing influence and ubiquity of social media is affecting criminal trials. If so, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) is asking whether the criminal justice system 'has the tools it needs to manage that risk'.
Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 publishing anything that creates a 'substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced, even if there is no intent to cause such prejudice' is contempt.
Wright said the 'traditional mainstream media' are fully aware of the boundaries set out in the act, and the consequences of stepping outside them. 'Social media presents new challenges to these fair trial protections,' he warned.
The AGO wants to hear about any experiences of trials being affected by social media commentary, and evidence of anonymity orders and reporting restrictions being breached on social media. The evidence will form the basis of a report to help the attorney general consider what changes may be needed 'to strike a balance between the rights of the individual to express their views via social media and the protection of fairness in criminal proceedings', the AGO said.
Law Society president Joe Egan commented: 'Social media increases the opportunities for people involved in trials to disclose or receive information that might put justice at risk, but that risk has always existed. We need to continue to balance the right to freedom of expression with the right of an accused person to a fair trial.
'It is vital that anyone participating in a trial - witnesses, members of the jury - understands what they can and can't do - and also understands the consequences of breaking these laws. It’s also worth thinking about what more we can do to help social media users understand these issues.'
Submissions must be made by 8 December.