Skip to main content

Contempt of Court

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2014

Since taking office, I have been active in ensuring that the public are better informed of the law of contempt and, in particular, the dangers of online commentary. I have done that in a variety of ways including education, delivering speeches, attending symposia on contempt, and review by asking the Law Commission to look at the law of contempt and legislation. New criminal offences of juror misconduct and amendments to the law of contempt are being introduced in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. Finally, where necessary, I institute contempt proceedings against contemnors.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. I welcome the new offences in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. How does he see the interrelation between those new offences and the existing law of contempt working? In other words, how will judges be expected to deal with the often knotty problems that come before them when jurors misbehave?

I hope that the benefit of this change to the law will be to emphasise the criminal nature of the conduct of a juror who fails to follow the judge’s directions and acts in a way that undermines the fairness of a trial process. At the same time, by providing that it is an indictable offence that is triable by jury, there will be better safeguards for jurors in terms of fairness if they are prosecuted as a result. I trust that the combination of those two things will enable judges to be more robust in their directions to the jury at the outset when explaining that it has an important function to perform, and that that must be performed within the framework that the judge lays down in his directions. In my experience, jurors are, for the most part, animated entirely by good will towards the public interest, so I feel that if we do that, some of the regrettable problems that we have had may be further reduced.

I am sure that the House will agree unanimously that we are all now considerably better informed.

In recent years, the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook to express opinion has increased significantly. What advice can my right hon. and learned Friend give those who are taking part in court proceedings to ensure that, in using those methods of communication, they are not in contempt?

The change that we have introduced is that we tweet and post online the advisories that we issue. Whereas in the past those were sent confidentially to the media, they are now accessible in a similar, if not identical, form to individuals who may take an interest in the trial process. We hope that individuals will thereby be warned about the dangers of inappropriate comment and that, as a result, fewer proceedings against those who abuse the system will be necessary.