Social-media users face jail for ruining court cases
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.