Jurors should face up to two years in prison if they search the internet for information about cases beyond what is revealed in court, the Law Commission has recommended.
Judges should also be given powers to remove jurors’ mobile phones, and all internet-enabled devices must be confiscated during jury room deliberations, according to the commission’s proposals for reformingcontempt of court regulations.
The attorney general, the report suggests, ought to take on responsibility for ordering the media to remove previously published stories from websites if they are deemed to jeopardise a fair trial.
The imposition of strict criminal liabilities on jurors, the Law Commission argues, has become necessary owing to the advent of the internet and the immediate availability online of information published and stored on sites across the world.
Launching the report, Professor David Ormerod QC, the commissioner leading the review, explained that he was trying to balance defendants’ right to a fair trial, the interests of jurors and public confidence in the administration of justice.
The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, who has been active in enforcing contempt proceedings, had asked for the work to be expedited. The legal initiative will require the support of a government department to transform the proposals into a draft bill for parliament.
Many of the powers already exist within contempt of court procedures. Ormerod said: “Putting this prohibition on a statutory setting would bring greater clarity and certainty for both courts and juries.
“Members of the jury would know the rules, the wrongdoing could be prosecuted in the same way as other crimes and jurors accused of contempt would benefit from the normal protections of the criminal process.”
There have been a series of recent incidents involving jurors who carried out online research about the case they were trying and then informed the other jurors. In July, a juror who told colleagues at Kingston crown court details about a fraud trial that had not been revealed in court was sentenced to two months in jail; the case collapsed and a new trial had to be held.
Internet-enabled devices should not be automatically taken away from jurors when they enter a court building, the Law Commission proposes, but they should be removed during the period when the jury is deliberating at the end of a trial.
Judges should nonetheless have the power to order confiscation at any time, for example when jurors visit the scene of a crime.
The Law Commission believes its proposals on removing stories from websites will not require media organisations to monitor every trial in the country to ensure that archived stories, still available online, pose a risk to a fair trial.
By requiring the attorney general to make a formal approach to the media when it is feared there is a significant risk that previously published material could undermine justice, the commission intends that interventions will be rare.
Responding to the recommendations, Grieve said: “Juror contempt is a serious risk to justice but people are often not aware of the consequences. The Law Commission’s proposal to make it an offence for jurors to search for information about their case on the internet or by other means would make the position absolutely clear and would, I hope, reduce the need for future prosecutions.
“[The law Commission has] attempted to strike a very careful balance between freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial. I will now need to discuss the recommendations carefully with my government colleagues before we respond formally.”