Plymouth trial collapses - but what is contempt of court and why does it matter?
A Plymouth trial has collapsed after three members of the jury researched the case on the internet.
Judge Paul Darlow discharged the jury in the assault and attempted robbery trial of Paul Easby after two women and a man admitted they had looked things up on the web.
He had given the panel a clear warning not to carry out their own research, and said to do so could result in prosecution for contempt of court.
The collapse is thought to have come at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds.
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But what is contempt of court and why does it matter if jurors carry out their own research?
Contempt of court is essentially where somebody is deemed to have interfered with the administration of justice.
This may take several forms – from a newspaper or blogger revealing somebody’s identity which had been protected by the courts, to a juror discussing with a friend or newspaper the private deliberations of the jury room.
What’s the point of contempt laws?
Contempt of court rules aim to ensure fair trials by limiting juries’ exposure to prejudicial material – for example, a defendant’s previous convictions.
The point is a defendant has the right to be tried according to the evidence properly placed before a court and on that evidence alone.
Contempt laws exist to protect each person’s right to a fair trial.
So the current law, which dates back to 1981, prevents the publication of material which creates a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing a fair trial.
But what’s the harm in a juror doing their own research online?
There are a number of risks here. A juror researching a defendant might come across someone else with the same name and so end up reading totally unrelated material.
They may look up the scene of the crime on a street-view service, not understanding the camera's perspective may be different from that of the witness.
Or they may look up the law on a particular topic and pick up skewed or inaccurate information.
The danger is the material can be prejudicial and, though it may remain in the mind of the juror, cannot be challenged by the defendant in court.
So the aim is to ensure the jury does not get to see prejudicial or inadmissible evidence.
But a juror can’t be punished for researching a case online, right?
Wrong. Jurors have been sent to prison for carrying out online research on defendants. Last year Theodora Dallas, a juror who carried out online research on a defendant standing trial at Luton Crown Court, was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt.
The lord chief justice said Dallas had deliberately disobeyed the trial judge's instructions not to search the internet and added: “The damage to the administration of justice is obvious.”
And in June 2011 Joanne Fraill, 40, was given an eight-month jail term after becoming the first juror to be prosecuted for contempt of court for using the internet.
She admitted using Facebook to exchange messages with Jamie Sewart, 34, a defendant already acquitted in a multimillion-pound drug trial in Manchester in 2010, and carrying out research into another defendant while the jury was deliberating.
What’s more, in November last year the Law Commission proposed jurors who conduct online research may need to be prosecuted under a new criminal offence.
The body suggests new penalties for said jurors, and even considered confiscating jurors' mobile phones and internet-enabled devices when they attend court.
So what can be done?
The effectiveness of the contempt laws in England and Wales in the age of blogs and Twitter is a serious issue, which is why the Law Commission is proposing changes.