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Attorney General Launches Crackdown on ‘Trial by Social Media’

Attorney General Launches Crackdown on ‘Trial by Social Media’

The Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, is launching a public consultation into how social media is having an effect on the outcomes of trials. The call for evidence by the government’s chief legal adviser is in response to recommendations by the senior appeal court judge, Sir Brian Leveson, in the light of legal challenges over what could be published about the trial of two schoolgirls who were eventually convicted of murder in 2014.

Social media comments led to abandonment of trial

The original trial of two schoolgirls tried for Angela Wrightson’s murder in Hartlepool in 2014 was abandoned by Leveson after comments about the case were posted on social media networks and received a number of comments which threatened to prejudice the original trial. While news agencies published unbiased and accurate representations of the trial, adverse comments were published on Facebook in response to the published stories, which Leveson said threatened the integrity of the legal process.

Before the retrial, Leveson placed various restrictions on what was allowed to be posted on social media websites and what social media users were allowed to themselves post in response to the postings. However, in response to these restrictions, media outlets claimed that the judge’s demands were disproportionate. The judge subsequently made a postponement to prevent media outlets from publishing case details on Facebook and called for media organisations to disable comments on their own websites.

Speaking on the impact of social media on the Wrightson case, Jeremy Wright said:

“There was a murder trial, one of the most serious trials you can contemplate that had to be stopped because of social media commentary that has been happening about the defendants and trial more generally. The judge had to stop the trial completely, it had to be moved physically to a different part of the country and the trial begun again.”

Social media users are largely ignorant of contempt rules

Contempt of Court laws are in place that prohibit media outlets from reporting in a biased manner on court cases. In theory, such laws also apply to social media users who post comments, because such comments also fall under the definition of a publication. However, many social media users remain unaware of the legal weight of their comments and the impact that they can have on the outcome of a case in court.

Speaking about the contempt of court laws, Jeremy Wright said: “If you go back a few years, the only people capable of reaching a wide enough audience that there was a serious risk of prejudicing a jury were established media outlets . . . And they, broadly speaking, knew what the 1981 Contempt of Court Act said, they knew where the line was between what you could say and what you couldn’t. Sometimes they transgressed, of course, but they at least broadly speaking as an entity, knew what the rules were.”

Wright continued: “That’s not true of members of the public, who don’t understand what the Contempt of Court Act says, and probably don’t realise what damage their piece of social media commentary or comment might do.”

Attorney general wants expert evidence

Wright states that he intends his public consultation to unravel the scale of social media’s impact on court trials by discussing the issue with a range of legal professionals and victim groups. He said:

“I am looking for expert evidence on whether the increasing influence and ubiquity of social media is having an impact on criminal trials and if so, whether the criminal justice system has the tools it needs to manage that risk.”

The call for evidence, which ends on December 8th, asks respondents if they have been involved in a case in which reporting restrictions have been breached by social media and whether the “risks posed by social media to the administration of justice are greater than five years ago.”

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