Groundbreaking research on juries has revealed that most jurors feel they are not given enough guidance on conducting deliberations, while almost a quarter misunderstand the rules on internet use during trials.
Among jurors who misunderstand the contempt rules, 16% believe they cannot use the internet at all - even to check their own emails - while serving on a jury.
At the other end of the scale, 5% believe there is no restriction at all on their use of the internet during a trial and 2% believe they can look for information about their case during the trial as long as it does not influence their judgement.
Almost all jurors (82%) said they would have liked more information on conducting deliberations, particularly in relation to what they should do if they are confused about a legal issue (49%), and if something goes wrong during deliberations (35%).
Among jurors that received written directions, 100% said they found them helpful, while among jurors that did not receive written directions, 85% said they would have found them helpful.
The research found that relatively few jurors said they used the internet in ways that could be legally problematic: 6% looked up information about legal terms used in the case; 1% visited the crime scene on Google Earth, Street View or other internet sites; and 1% looked up information about parties to the case.
In terms of social media, 3% shared their experience of jury service on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and 1% blogged or chatted online about doing jury service.
The research also found that jurors are less likely to report instances of fellow jurors misusing new media than other behaviour such as potential jury tampering and bullying in the deliberating room, because they feel uncomfortable reporting this.
The findings, reported in the Criminal Law Review, are from the first stage of a four-stage research project working with real juries at Crown courts in England and Wales.
They provide the first empirical evidence in this country on juror understanding of the rules on contempt, awareness of recent prosecutions of jurors, willingness to report improper conduct, and the desire for guidance on conducting deliberations and written directions on the law from the judge.
The findings follow a number of cases involving jurors’ inappropriate use of the internet, that led to juries being discharged, trials being abandoned and jurors being convicted for contempt.
The research team led by Cheryl Thomas, professor of judicial studies at University College London, interviewed 239 jurors following 20 verdicts in cases in London over the past year.
Thomas said: ‘These findings show that the vast majority of jurors understand and follow the rules on how jurors can use new media during trial, but the message is not getting through and is confusing to a significant minority of jurors.’
In order to minimise juror contempt in the new media age, Thomas said that jurors must understand the rules on improper conduct, know how and when to report it when they see it, and should be able to do so with ease.
She said: ‘If we ignore these critical factors, then we run the risk of creating the ideal conditions for a "perfect storm" of juror contempt.’