The Contempt of Court Act 1981 deals with the law relating to contempt of court.
Often referred to simply as "contempt", this is the offence of a person being disobedient to or discourteous towards, a court of law and its officers. A court holds a person guilty of contempt if their behavior opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court.
Use of social media has given notoriety to contempt of court rules in recent years. In September 2017, Jeremy Wright, QC, the UK's Attorney-General announced a Call for Evidence to assess the impact social media was having upon the laws of contempt. He referenced a case where a judge had stopped one trial because of prejudicial posts on social media. He expressed his concerns over whether the law was “fit for purpose” to deal with it.
“The established media understand the rules on contempt of court but I am concerned to establish if there is a wider issue with social media,” the Attorney-General said. He has launched an inquiry into the impact of social media on criminal trials and seeks evidence from judges, lawyers and victims’ groups.
Last year, a judge stopped the murder trial of two teenage girls in Hartlepool because of comments made on Facebook. Jurors found the two girls guilty of the murder of Angela Wrightson at a second trial.
The trial judge subsequently posted a wide-ranging order prohibiting the media from posting links to stories about the case on social media websites.
The challenge for law makers is to strike a balance between allowing jurors their right to freedom of speech (ie. to continue accessing social media during a trial,especially if their normal work requires them to do so) whilst maintaining the integrity of the judicial system.
Contempt of Court
The Attorney General's calls for legal reform are not new. In 2012, the UK Law Commission consulted on proposals to change contempt of court rules to ensure they remained credible in protecting victims of crime.
This followed another case concerned the trial for rape of professional footballer Chad Evans. The criminal court found him guilty and sentenced him to imprisonment. But Evans' cousin used social media website Twitter to name his victim - whom the court had granted anonimity. This resulted in prosecutors laying charges against the the footballer's cousin for contempt of court. She had to pay the victim damages.
Furthermore, in June 2011, a court jailed a serving juror for 8 months for contempt of court after the juror had contacted a defendant via Facebook.
TOP TIP FOR JURORS
Don’t post comments about the trial on social media websites like Facebook or Twitter - even after the trial’s finished. This is contempt of court and a court can fine you or send you to prison.
Visit https://www.gov.uk/jury-service/discussing-the-trial for further information.
Disclosure of information
The Contempt of Court Act 1981 also deals with disclosure of information matters.
A court cannot require anyone to disclose the source of any information that they hold. Unless disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice; national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime.
Where a person fails to disclose the source, the court can only hold them in contempt of court if it is satisfied that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice; national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime.
Newspapers v ISPs
The Act gives protection to newspapers against revealing their source of information. More, recently, the courts have required ISPs to disclose sources of defamatory information posted on web sites that they hosted. Arguably - and it is a bone of contention - many also see ISPs as pubishers too.
Should courts also exempt them from revealing their source of information too?
The Attorney General Call for Evidence: Impact of Social Media on the Administration of Justice (Sep 2017)
This article was first published in 2011 and updated 2017.