Contempt of court: Attorney General warns Twitter users on legal risks

Contempt of court: Attorney General warns Twitter users on legal risks


Author: Jo Joyce

These days, it seems as if every passing week brings with it a new story in the press about the legal risks of engaging with social media. We have heard much recently about the dangers of defamation on Twitter.

Earlier this year, Sally Bercow learned to her cost just how easy it can be to libel someone without explicitly accusing them of anything, after sharing a message about Lord McAlpine with her Twitter followers: "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*".

More troubling than the kind of damage to reputation that leads to civil litigation, is the kind that can land a person in prison.

In June 2013, the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidance on the prosecution of cases arising from social media communications, and instances of criminal prosecutions arising out of conduct taking place on social media are on the increase just as are criminal activities online.

This week the Attorney General announced a new measure to address one of these phenomena - contempt of court.

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 provides for criminal sanctions up to and including imprisonment for anyone who acts in a way 'tending to interfere with the course of justice in particular legal proceedings regardless of intent to do so'. If a jury is not capable of hearing a case, the trial may have to be abandoned.

The Attorney General is the public official responsible for taking action where there appears to be a risk that a fair trial or legal process will be prevented.

Traditionally, the Attorney General only had to worry about the mainstream media and in cases where there has been a lot of media speculation he issues advisory notes to print and broadcast media outlets warning that comments on the case run the risk of amounting to contempt of court.

Until now such 'advisories' have been sent out on a 'not for publication' basis, but in an attempt to keep up with the brave new world that is social media, current Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC has announced that this is set to change.

With the advent of Twitter, anyone with a few followers can consider themselves a journalist. However, whilst media professionals are trained in the law and ought to know better than to comment prejudicially on live proceedings, ordinary Twitter users may be less sophisticated.

As a result, advisory notes from the Attorney General will now be published on his section of the website and via the Office of the Attorney General's Twitter feed (@AGO_UK) to help prevent social media users from committing a contempt of court.

This change in policy follows on from the Attorney General's prosecution of contempt proceedings arising from the use of social media earlier this year, against a man who tweeted an image of someone he claimed was Jon Venables, killer of toddler Jamie Bulger, in breach of an injunction.

The man admitted his actions and received a suspended prison sentence, in November. This was the third case brought by the Attorney General for breach of this particular injunction, and the fact it has been repeatedly breached despite the publicity around the trials shows how hard it is to persuade Twitter users that the law really does apply to them.

On average, the Attorney General only sends out about five advisories per year, though so far in 2013 he has issued double this number, suggesting contempt of court is a matter on which he feels strongly.

In his announcement of the change, Dominic Grieve sought to assure people that the move is not about censorship, saying, in fact, 'it's designed to help facilitate commentary in a lawful way'.

Whether or not that proves to be the case, the Government is certainly facing an uphill struggle in attempting to restrain speculation on social media, particularly in taming the beast that is Twitter.

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