Trial by social media
A government campaign began recently advising people to beware of what they post on social media about ongoing legal proceedings. This is important not only because it can affect what happens at any trial that is posted about, but also it can result in a conviction for those that post the material.
Innocent until proven guilty
The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” is paramount in the English legal system, The mechanism by which people are proven guilty is very precise: they either plead guilty, or they are found guilty by a jury or magistrates. Material that the jury or magistrates are allowed to hear and consider is tightly regulated by acts of parliament such as the Criminal Justice Act.
As an example, imagine Mr Brown had been accused of stealing a computer. Some material which may appear to be relevant (for example that a defendant has previous convictions for theft, or that someone overheard a conversation alleging that the defendant had been trying to sell a computer fast) can be excluded from a trial because it is not as relevant as it may seem, or it is unreliable, or may have such a prejudicial effect that it would preclude the Defence from a fair trial.
There are very strict rules about when such evidence can be heard and considered, and a Judge needs to make the decision on it. This is to ensure that there is a fair trial.
If someone posts about these things on social media before the conclusion of the trial, then there is a risk that this material (which may be inadmissible or even false) will be seen by the jury before they are asked to give a verdict and it has the potential to change their views on the case. This is seen by the courts to circumvent the protections that are put in place to ensure a fair trial, and can cause the collapse of a trial at significant public expense. Therefore, posting about ongoing proceedings can be viewed as contempt of court, for which people can go to prison and have to pay prosecution costs. It is a very serious business.
However, as with many things in criminal law, these things aren’t black and white. Not everything posted about ongoing proceedings will constitute contempt of court. It may be that you are prosecuted for this offence wrongly as a result of something that you have posted, and therefore you should seek advice.