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Contempt of Court

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2011

8. Whether he plans to take steps to reduce the likelihood of any future prosecutions for contempt of court arising from the use of social media. (63525)

As guardians of the public interest, the Law Officers bring contempt of court proceedings when it is appropriate to do so. I did so in the case of Fraill and Sewart in the divisional court, in which the Lord Chief Justice presided on 14 and 16 June. It is for the trial court judge to warn parties, and the public, not to publish prejudicial reports, and when appropriate to impose reporting restrictions. Juries in particular are warned repeatedly by the court not to use the internet to research cases in which they are involved.

I do not know whether the Solicitor-General is on Twitter, but I am concerned that not only he, but UK law, appears to be on the back foot when facing what is not even new technology. Twitter is five years old next month. Is it not time we demonstrated that UK law is as at home online as on the streets?

Let me confess: I do not tweet, nor do I have a Facebook account; perhaps the hon. Lady is not terribly surprised by that. In the relationship between social media and the law of contempt, the principle and the issues are exactly the same. The means of communicating may have evolved, but the principles we need to apply to ensure that the due administration of justice is not impeded or prejudiced remain the same for talking over the garden fence as for exchanging information through modern internet and social media.

Would the Solicitor-General confirm that judges always give strict directions to juries that they must not access any form of internet or other information sources when considering their deliberations in a criminal trial?

Yes they do, and I have done it myself when sitting as a judge. What one cannot guarantee, of course, is that members of juries will obey those instructions and directions when they get home—but we have to rely on the good sense and public duty of citizens whose public duty it is to serve on juries.

Public concern about the misuse of modern communication technology, including social media, is growing, particularly about its impact on the pursuit of justice. That was most recently highlighted by the truly sickening allegations of phone hacking in the Milly Dowler case. The CPS announced a review of hacking evidence almost six months ago. When will the public and victims receive an update? Will further criminal prosecutions be brought, and will the Solicitor-General confirm whether any criminal investigations may have been jeopardised by the behaviour of the press and the rest of the media?

With the greatest respect, I think that if the hon. Lady had thought about it a little more, she would understand that I am not going to give a running commentary either on the police investigations or on the likely consequences of any police investigations. She may rest assured that investigations will continue, and they will continue to follow the evidence wherever it may be—and if the evidence warrants prosecutions, they will be brought. That is work that we need to do in future; it is not something that I need to make announcements about here in the absence of any direct or relevant information immediately to hand.