Contempt laws to stay despite online onslaught
Guardian: Is it possible to keep information from the public when websites such as Wikileaks seem to be beyond reach of the law?
The practical reality, in the internet age, with the High Court’s writ reaching only England & Wales, is that it is almost impossible to stop sensitive information which could be prejudicial to a fair trial reaching the public domain. We have seen the futility of maintaining injunctions in privacy and libel cases – but the conduct of a criminal trial could have very much more serious consequences for the defendant if the trial becomes unfair through jurors seeing information which they ought not to be seeing to judge the particular case. I wrote about this some time ago and a regular commenter suggested that jurors, on the whole, had a good sense of fairness and could be relied upon to try cases fairly. I hope he is right.
The attorney general has dismissed calls to scrap laws that prevent publication of prejudicial information about unconvicted defendants.
Delivering the annual Kalisher lecture to the Criminal Bar Association on Tuesday, Dominic Grieve QC rejected claims that contempt of court laws were no longer fit for the age of Twitter, blogs and online news archives.
The government’s senior legal adviser acknowledged the problems that can arise now that damaging information may circulate so freely. In the Baby P case, a judge had banned the identification of three people convicted of causing the death of Peter Connelly because two of them were subsequently due to stand trial for another offence.
“It was not long before their identities were being distributed on social network sites, external websites and even via text messages with an instruction to pass them on,” Grieve said.
Scotland Yard’s electronic crime unit had been reasonably effective in getting the names removed from UK-based sites, he explained, but dealing with foreign sites was more difficult. In the end, other measures were taken to ensure that Steven Barker and Tracey Connelly received a fair trial last year.
Joshua Rozenberg summed the issue up neatly – and I agree with his view :
Grieve is right to maintain restrictions while taking a largely non-interventionist approach to contempt of court. Despite the growth in social media, it is still possible for juries to try defendants without knowing facts about them that would render acquittals impossible.
Freedom of expression is essential but delaying the publication of prejudicial information is a small price to pay for an even nobler ideal: a fair trial.