Social media not a ‘serious threat’ to court hearings, government concludes

Responses to consultation reveal that risk created by online platforms is no more than ‘relatively minor’

Following the completion of a call for evidence, the government has found that “social media doesn’t currently pose a serious threat” to criminal trials.

The consultation exercise, launched in September 2017 and led by the Attorney General’s Office, sought “examples of trials being affected by social media commentary, and evidence of anonymity orders or reporting restrictions being breached via social media”. 

Although the call for evidence concluded that, on the whole, online platforms are not a serious danger for the criminal justice system, social media users’ lack of awareness of reporting restrictions and contempt of court laws was flagged as an “area of concern”. 

“Social media posts which are in contempt of court or which identify someone subject to an anonymity order are not uncommon,” the government said. “This has the potential to put trials at risk, as it could prejudice parties involved in the case, such as jurors, although cases where this has occurred have so far been rare.”

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To help combat this problem in the future, the government has created a new GOV.UK webpage explaining, in brief, what constitutes contempt of court. The page also provides advice on and what kinds of online posts should be avoided, such as comments opining on a person’s guilt or innocence, referring to a defendant’s previous convictions, or naming sex-crime victims or trial participants under the age of 18.

Solicitor general Robert Buckland said: “Social media users must think before they post – the rules are the same as those for traditional media, and being found in contempt of court could result in a fine or up to two years in prison.”

Respondents to the call for evidence included representatives of the criminal justice system, journalists, academics, and members of the public. Despite the increased risk of contempt of court, the evidence provided revealed that, overall, social media does not constitute a serious threat to criminal court proceedings.

“Every defendant in this country is entitled to a fair trial where a verdict is delivered based on the evidence heard in court,” Buckland added. “We launched this call for evidence with the goal of discovering whether the legal process was at risk due to social media, and whether people working in the criminal justice system have the tools they need to manage that risk. I am pleased to say that our respondents reported that this risk is relatively minor, and that they are already confident that they can mitigate the risk where it does arise. We need to guard against any future proliferation of the threat, however.”

Sam Trendall

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