The Internet era had been of great advantage to the legal sector.
Cases can be referred to instantly, changes to the law promulgated rapidly, and all manner of legal processes dealt with online. However, the other side of the Internet involves social media.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of such instant communication, forums to air opinions or exchange information, in the courtroom, both social media and the Internet have been very unwelcome for one group – jurors.
Jurors are sworn in to hear the merits of the arguments advanced by both prosecution and defence, and to come to a conclusion regarding the defendant’s guilt based on the evidence before them, and in line with any legal rules (the Ghosh test for dishonesty) or definitions (such as the legal definition of homicide) explained to them. Any other details, information or knowledge is strictly supposed to be kept out of the jury room, and the deliberations of the jury.
The problem with modern mass media and readily accessible information, is that jurors can do “extra curricular” research which could put the impartiality of the jury at risk. Finding out the prior reported convictions about the defendant on Google will influence, however slightly, most jurors against them – even when legal rules prevent those convictions being revealed in court in most cases. The same applies for social media, and jurors making unwise – or indeed any – comments about the trial in progress. Stating online to friends and followers that the defendant must be innocent before the prosecution has even begun their case is detrimental to the course of justice.
In the jurisdiction of England & Wales, recent years have seen many cases (often reported in the press) of judges admonishing or sentencing jurors for just such actions. Many jurors have themselves ended up the wrong side of the law by tweeting or researching the case – and then ending up in contempt of court, fined, with a conviction themselves, or similar. When discovered, many judges err on the side of making an example, loud and clear, of those who flout the rules and procedures of impartiality that are key to any trial.
Once again, this recently made its way into the press, as two judges, in two separate cases, handed down suspended sentences to two jurors.
In the first case, James Smith, 28, was given a nine-month jail term, suspended for 12 months, by Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice, and Mrs Justice Whipple before the High Court in London. Mr Smith had been a juror in case before Liverpool Crown Court in 2014. He had researched online about the case, and then disclosed to fellow jurors what he had found out about the defendant. In the resulting mistrial, a ten week firearms and drugs trial had to be abandoned – at a cost of £80,000.
Mr Smith, at his own trial, apologised for his stupidity, stating that he had been “basically nosy.” In his defence, he advanced his poor emotional state of mind and lack of judgement at the time, as his life had been falling apart at the time, with Mr Smith having recently left his job on the railway to become a taxi driver. He was also fined £900 in court costs.
In the second case, Deborah Dean, 47, was given a sentence of three months, suspended for 12 months for revealing the deliberations of the jury room to the defendants in a trial before Sheffield Crown Court in 2014. Ms Dean had, after the trial, written three letters to the defendants of an admittedly emotive trial on charges including rape, sex trafficking and sexual activity with a child. In her letters, she had further expressed derogatory views about her fellow jurors, and had mentioned that she had tried hard to fight their corner in the deliberations in the jury room. She expressed that she was sorry for the outcome of the trial – which resulted in the one male defendant jailed for three years for sexual activity with a minor, and the other jailed for 12 years for sex trafficking and rape.
At her own trial earlier this year, Ms Dean, like Mr Smith, also apologised and admitted her wrongdoing. She had sent the letters out of misguided sympathy whilst herself distressed. Ms Dean also told the court how she had suffered a bleed to her brain some months prior to the 2014 trial, and suffered from daily epileptic seizures for which she needed medication.
The legal proceedings were brought by Solicitor General Robert Buckland. He later said of both jurors that the cases “are both serious examples of juror misconduct where the repeated directions of the judge were blatantly ignored. One of the cases cost the taxpayer huge amounts of money when the trial had to be abandoned. This wastage of costs was completely avoidable… Contempt of court of this nature involves serious wrongdoing and I instigated these proceedings as it was clearly in the wider public interest to do so. Any action which interferes with the administration of justice is a serious breach and I hope today’s judgement sends a lesson to other jurors about their responsibilities.”
Lord Thomas added his own word on the matter. Whilst finding it hard to condemn those performing a civic duty, he had no option by to punish severely to get the message across to both the defendants and to other jurors who might be tempted to act similarly that such actions are contrary to the directions handed to juries by the court, and contrary to the very ethos of a trial by jury. With research (from 2012) indicating that jurors should better educated about such contempt rules, Lord Thomas also stated that new guidelines would be issued to jurors. The new guidelines would clearly set out at the beginning of any trial the expectations and obligations of jurors, so that there could be no misunderstandings in this matter.
Mr Smith and Ms Dean are not the first jurors to fall foul of the law themselves – and they will not be the last. Quite simply, jurors need to be more aware than ever of their actions, both online and offline, during and after a trial, last they themselves end up in the dock for contempt of court.