So­cial-me­dia users face jail for ru­in­ing court cases

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Peo­ple who cause tri­als to col­lapse by writ­ing sen­si­tive or vit­ri­olic com­ments on Face­book and Twit­ter could end up be­hind bars.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeremy Wright, the govern­ment’s top le­gal of­fi­cer, is wor­ried that the fair­ness of tri­als is be­ing un­der­mined by ‘vir­tual lynch­ing mobs’ on­line.

Many peo­ple are un­aware that laws re­strict­ing the me­dia un­fairly re­port­ing court cases also ap­ply to com­ments made by the public on­line (see box). Writ­ing any­thing that might in­flu­ence a jury could be re­garded as con­tempt of court.

Mr Wright called for ev­i­dence on whether cur­rent laws pre­vent ‘trial by so­cial me­dia’. It fol­lows a case in which two school­girls ac­cused of killing An­gela Wright­son, a vul­ner­a­ble woman from Hartle­pool, were widely abused on­line, lead­ing to the judge rul­ing that they would not have had a fair trial.

The trial col­lapsed and was moved to Leeds Crown Court, cost­ing the tax­payer tens of thou­sands of pounds. The girls were found guilty and sen­tenced to 15 years in jail.

Mr Wright said that the case “shows that so­cial me­dia is hav­ing some im­pact on the ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice in crim­i­nal tri­als, but it does not show to what ex­tent”.

He added: “We need to eval­u­ate if there is a risk from so­cial me­dia and, if so, whether the risk is in­creas­ing”.

He is ask­ing judges, po­lice and vic­tims’ groups for ex­am­ples of tri­als be­ing com­pro­mised by com­ments on­line. A re­port will out­line whether ac­tion should be taken.

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