The right to a fair trial is both central to our justice system and the rule of law. The rules around contempt of court exist to protect that right, and the administration of justice more generally, but they are not well understood.
Contempt of court rules apply to members of the public as they do to media organisations. With the use of social media more prevalent than ever, it has become easier for members of the public to commit contempt of court, without any real awareness of what they have done, or the possible consequences of their actions.
Speculating about an accused’s previous convictions or character, naming or posting photos of victims, naming individuals or posting photos in breach of reporting restrictions, and leaking embargoed court documents are all examples of contempt of court that can be committed on social media.
This is why I launched my ‘Think Before You Post’ campaign to increase public understanding around the dangers of prejudicing active cases and to prevent the collapse of future trials by people committing contempt through misuse of social media. During the campaign my office published advice and guidance on what contempt of court is, and how the public can stay on the right side of the law.
We have all seen the damage misuse of social media can cause within the justice system. In 2015 two teenage girls were put on trial for the murder of Angela Wrightson and they were both granted anonymity due to their age. After only two days, the judge was forced to suspend the trial after hundreds of posts purporting to reveal their identities appeared on social media. Aborting the trial cost the public tens of thousands of pounds and led to justice being delayed while prolonging the suffering of the victim’s family. Both defendants were subsequently jailed for a minimum of 15 years in 2016, following a reconstituted trial at Leeds Crown Court.
As we know, contempt of court can also affect innocent individuals. In 2010 we saw the media vilify an entirely innocent man in Bristol, for a murder with which he was never even charged. The then Attorney General brought successful contempt proceedings against the Sun and the Mirror. With platforms like Twitter facilitating commentary to unfold at an unprecedented pace, the prospect of a similar episode unfolding on social media is unnerving. It is tremendously important that we prevent this kind of prejudice from taking place, so far as we can.
When I instigate contempt proceedings I act independently from the government and in the public interest, to uphold the rule of law. As ‘Guardian of the Public Interest’ I take my ability to bring contempt proceedings to uphold the administration of justice very seriously indeed. It not only enables me to ensure justice is done, but also that innocent members of the public are kept safe, that the integrity of the courts system is protected and observed, and that everyone charged receives a fair and just trial.
Barristers, working at the heart of the justice system, can play an important role in this public legal education. I urge you to continue on the work of this campaign by taking every suitable opportunity to inform those you encounter in your day-today work about the consequences a misjudged post on social media could have. Your efforts may avoid the collapse of a trial, or witnesses having to give their evidence again, or the vilification of an innocent bystander.
Attorney General Michael Ellis QC MP