On 29 July 2013, two men, Mr Davey and Mr Beard, were sentenced to two months’ immediate custody each for contempt of court. On 23 July 2013, they were, despite their protestations of innocence, found to have committed contempt of court. The transcript is available here.
Both Davey and Beard were jurors who fell foul of the prohibition on jurors conducting their own research away from court. There was a mixture of reactions on Twitter as the sentences were imposed; some were shocked that such conduct could result in a prison sentence, others, perhaps better informed, were less surprised, given the increasing regularity of jury irregularities due to internet based activities during a trial.
Davey, aged 20 when summoned to serve on a jury, had a Facebook account with 400 friends.
On his arrival at court Mr Davey, like the other jurors, was shown the jury video. It included statements in the following terms:
“Please do not discuss the details of the trial with anyone other than your fellow jurors, not even your family.”
“Do not speak to anyone at all about the cases you hear.”
“Do not use social networking sites to post any aspects of your jury service.”
At the end of his first day at the Crown Court at Wood Green, he posted the following message to his Facebook profile:
“Woooow I wasn’t expecting to be in a jury Deciding a paedophile’s fate, I’ve always wanted to Fuck up a paedophile & now I’m within the law!”
Mr Davey was discharged and the case continued with 11 jurors. The matter was then investigated by the police.
The court found that this constituted a contempt of court.
Beard was aged 29 when summoned for jury service at the Crown Court at Kingston upon Thames. The trial he was selected to sit on was expected to last around two months. About five and a half weeks into the trial, the following (taken from the transcript) came to the court’s attention.
“One of the jurors, Mr Sewell, reported to the court clerk, Ms Ogle, that on the previous day he had had a conversation with one of the jurors… There were various conversations going on, and in the conversation to which he was a party a question was asked as to how many investor witnesses would be heard from. One of the other members of the jury, Mr Beard, stated that the number of investors affected was about 1,800, although Mr Sewell did not recall the precise number. Mr Sewell asked Mr Beard where that figure came from as he was concerned he had missed some evidence. Mr Beard then stated that he had done a search on the internet through Google using the name of the operation and he got the figure that way. Mr Sewell then said “No, No, No, No! Don’t tell me about that. You shouldn’t have done that. I don’t want to hear about it.”
The jury was discharged. The cost of the defence amounted to £119,712 and the prosecution costs had been between £190,000 and £200,000.
Should we ban jurors from using the internet?
Discussing the case, in person or via social media, is prohibited for good reason; the jury are the only persons trying the case, and so any outside influence must be prevented. The reasons are self-evident. A jury trial is decided by 12 men and women, not by those 12 men and women, their neighbours, partners, friends and Twitter followers.
In relation to conducting research, is the issue a little more complex?
I read somewhere recently that 60% of people now have a smart phone. The figure for those who have access to the internet must be much higher. Is it realistic to expect that, especially on long and/or complex trials, jurors do not use the internet in relation to their case? I would suggest not. The internet is such an integral part of one’s life that courts have in the past held it disproportionate to prohibit sex offenders from using the internet all together, as a means of preventing further offending.
The reasons as to why jurors should not conduct their own research are as follows:
- There is no method by which the judge can regulate the accuracy/reliability of the information disclosed by internet research.
- There is no method by which the judge can prevent the discovery of excluded material.
- A juror’s own research places them on an uneven footing with other jurors.
So what is the appropriate response? The Attorney-General said on Radio 4’s Today programme, on 30 July 2013, that there were “about six incidences last year” where a juror’s behaviour interrupted a trial and he felt compelled to bring proceedings. Six may seem a small number against the approximately 18,000 jury trials a year, but at £27,000 per day for a Crown Court trial, the cost soon adds up – not to mention the unfairness on the defendant(s).
Do we allow jurors to conduct their own research? Not if we consider the three reasons above – there is no way to monitor and control the information and ensure the quality of content being researched.
Do we sequester our juries, like in the US, and like we used to in this country? Well, perhaps, although the costs involved would be extreme and the move away from such a practice was seen as a positive one, not least because it takes some pressure off jurors (who typically want to go home and see their families) from reaching a decision in undue haste.
So what is left? Well, with many “problems” faced by the law, the key is knowledge and understanding.
Rather than, as is the case up and down the country in jury lounges, simply stating “jurors are prohibited from…”, we should seek to educate the public as to why the prohibition exists. Some judges do, to some extent, attempt to explain the reasons, but this is typically done at the very beginning of a trial when jurors are familiarising themselves with the whole court process – it may be useful and effective to continuously remind them throughout the trial. It is surely the case that people are more likely to follow rules if they understand the underlying reasons for them?
The court in this case advocated a review of the terminology used in the material given to the jury and appeared to endorse the practice of judges giving jurors written instructions relating to the prohibition (see paras 58-61).
Whatever happens, a discussion about juror research in the press can only be a good thing.