In March 2011, the Daily Mail and The Sun were found guilty of contempt of court for publishing online photographs of a defendant posing with a gun at the start of a murder trial.
It was, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, outlined in a speech at City University London last week, “the first time” the High Court “had been asked to consider whether an online publication was a contempt of court”.
I find it astonishing it took over 12 years after the birth of Google for such a case to be brought.
There are likely to be far more breaches, either by mainstream media publications pushing legal boundaries or by thoughtless social media users, than cases brought.
It is this latter category that interests me: how is the public educated about contempt of court? After all, as I’ve argued on this blog before, we’re all publishers now.
Jurors receive special instruction, as they did in the murder trial described above, but information outside the courtroom is disseminated rather randomly.
It relies on mainstream media reporting the details of contempt of court cases. Thanks to national media interest in this recent case, more people now know not to upload a film of yourself dancing on the chairs in the court lobby.
I raised the point about lack of legal education on Twitter, and someone immediately replied:
“The same problem applies to any area of law and the wider public (eg, copyright). Ignorance of the law cannot be used as excuse!”
It’s a fair point that anyone can google a definition of contempt, but I suspect many breaches – not necessarily publicised through prosecution – are committed by people who don’t know that they need to look up the law before writing a contemptuous update on Facebook or Twitter.
Blog and online news comment moderators are likely to have encountered widespread ignorance of contempt. A recent survey conducted by YouGov for Nominet attempted to quiz the public on their online legal knowledge with questions addressing injunctions and active proceedings, but I’m not convinced we can deduce too much from its findings about ‘accidental outlaws’ as I’ve explained here. Further surveying in this area would be a useful exercise.
Various breaches of contempt of court online have been highlighted by the courts: in November contempt charges against an individual tweeting during the Vincent Tabak trial were dropped, while juror Joanne Fraill became the first person to be prosecuted for contempt of court for using the internet during a trial last June.
In regards to the latter case, Grieve said:
The case highlighted important principles and again that the internet does not provide some form of immunity from prosecution.
Grieve’s speech and the responses in the Q&A afterwards repeatedly emphasised that “bloggers are not immune from the law” and are as much subject to the law of the land as professional media publishers.
It would be helpful, then, for the Attorney General to consider how the public might be better informed about contempt. One Guardian commenter argued underneath David Banks’ excellent article about online contempt last month that the education system could make better provisions, for example.
This is a guest post by Judith Townend. Judith Townend is a freelance journalist and PhD researcher at the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism, City University, London. She blogs at http://meejalaw.com/ and is @jtownend on Twitter.