London-based solicitors Mackrell Turner Garrett have welcomed the Attorney General’s decision to publish guidance on Twitter in the aim of preventing users of social media from committing contempt of court when commenting on legal cases.
The advice from Dominic Greive QC follows a number of high profile cases recently where people have been fined after commenting on cases, or naming people involved in cases online and thereby committing contempt of court.
Peaches Geldof recently apologised for tweets relating to child sex abuser Ian Watkins, while several people were fined for naming a women raped by footballer Ched Evans.
Facebook and Twitter are classed in the eyes of the law as “publications” and are subject to the same laws that in practice used to apply only to the mainstream media such as contempt of court, defamation and libel.
The attorney general is to publish the advice, which applies to court cases in England and Wales, to the public via his website and Twitter feed, in order to inform people about the legal pitfalls of commentating in a way that could be seen as prejudicial to a court case or those involved.
Mr Grieve said that while blogs and social media sites mean people can instantly reach thousands of people, it can “pose certain challenges to the criminal justice system.”
Citing the guidance as “educational” rather than “some sort of big brother watch,” Mr Grieve said he hoped it would prevent legal risks and the collapse of high profile trials.
He said recent tweets by a juror had caused one sexual offences case to collapse, costing £300,000 and “requiring all the witnesses to go through the process all over again.”
He warned that the use of social media could undermine the fairness of trial, calling into question “the whole future of jury trials, which most people regard as a very important safeguard for our freedoms.”
Mr Grieve said the simplest advice he could give was for people not to comment on live trials online.
Donna Martin, a social media expert at Mackrell Turner Garrett, said: “The danger with social media such as Twitter and Facebook is that the public are not always aware that what they post can be read by thousands of people.
“Where conversations about court cases used to take place down the pub or over the water cooler, now they take place online in the public sphere and risk prejudicing trials.
“Unfortunately, unlike trained professionals in the media, most members of the public are simply ignorant of the risks posed by commenting on live cases.
“Publishing guidance and educating the public about the risk posed by social media is a good step towards prevention.”