Attorney general launches inquiry into ‘trial by social media’

The government’s top law officer has today warned about trial by social media and its negative impact on the administration of justice in criminal trials. The attorney general Jeremy Wright QC today issued a ‘call for evidence’ to evaluate if there was a risk from users of sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Jon Robins reports

Wright flagged up the Angela Wrightson murder trial halted after the judge decided that the torrent of abusive comments online meant that the defendants could not have a fair trial. The judge concluded that it would have been impossible for jurors to deliver a verdict based on the evidence heard in court alone. A retrial was ordered and the defendants were convicted.

The Contempt of Court Act 1981, sections 1 and 2 create a strict liability rule making it a contempt of court to publish anything that creates a substantial risk that the course of justice would be seriously impeded or prejudiced even if there is no intent to cause such prejudice.

According to the Attorney General’s note, social media platforms allow individuals to ‘reach thousands of people via a single post, making their views readily accessible to a potentially vast audience’. ‘Anyone posting a comment on a publicly available website which creates a substantial risk of causing serious prejudice in active proceedings faces the potential prospect of proceedings for contempt of court,’ it says. Whilst the ‘traditional mainstream media’ are ‘well aware of the boundaries set out in the 1981 Act and the consequences of stepping outside them’, social media presented ‘new challenges to these fair trial protections and the criminal justice system must ensure that it keeps pace with the information age’.

You can read about the Angela Wrightson case on the Justice Gap (here). Two schoolgirls were convicted of battering the vulnerable woman to death. The volume of posts led to a judge ruling that the teenagers could not have a fair trial in July 2015.

Back in 2013 the then attorney general Dominic Grieve published advice to prevent social media users committing contempt of court. ‘In days gone by, it was only the mainstream media that had the opportunity to bring information relating to a court case to such a large group of people that it could put a court case at risk,’ Grieve said.‘That is no longer the case.’


This article was first published on September 15, 2017

Profile photo of Jon Robins About Jon Robins
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award

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