6 Dec /12

Does connectivity breed contempt?

law and new mediaPrince Charles marries Princess Diana

Tom Baker makes his final appearance as Doctor Who

The Contempt of Court Act is passed into law

A lot has changed since 1981, but that year’s Contempt of Court Act remains the most recent update in this pivotal legal area. Now the Law Commission have published a new consultation paper on reforming contempt of court law. The three month consultation period began on November 28th and will seek answers to questions that have loomed large for some time.

How can a jury evaluate a case without being influenced by inadmissible evidence, when internet access and social media offer a mountain of such evidence a mere click away?

And can the current law or any updated version of it realistically hope to keep pace with modern technology?

When the existing law was passed, Britain was still four years away from its first mobile phone call. Now social media usage has made every citizen a potential information centre. Current figures indicate that Facebook’s billion devotees include 600 million mobile users. In addition, 500 million users share information on Twitter, and Youtube generates 4 billion views per day.

The existing law forbids the publication of any material which stands to prejudice a fair trial. But “publication” has never been a broader term. When people prepare for jury service they’re legally bound to enter the process with no prior knowledge. But the inquisitive juror’s instinct might be to do what they do in preparation for any professional situation, and run a google search on every aspect of the case. A report published in 2010 indicated that 12% of jurors in high-profile cases admitted carrying out internet research. Theodora Dallas, a juror in a 2011 assault trial, went one step further. After researching a defendant on the internet and finding that he had previously been accused of a similar offence, she shared the information with the rest of the jury. In January 2012 she was jailed for six months for contempt of court.

Even if jurors don’t actively research a case, information may well find its way to them. In the same way that a sports broadcaster screening recorded highlights of an event can no longer expect viewers to wait for hours without checking the final score, it’s unrealistic to expect people to ignore the thousand opinions that will be thrust at them via laptop and mobile.

Recent debates about online defamation have highlighted the lack of thought many internet users put into their postings. Countless users make potentially defamatory comments via social media every day, treating a global forum like an indiscreet conversation between friends. If this is the standard for information people put into the system, we can hardly expect them to apply a radically different standard to the information they take out of it. So what’s the answer? A form of legal flexibility, based on the realities of new media? A form of legal education based on accountability for the things we say and do? Perhaps a combination of both. At the end of the day, actions have consequences, a principle that EVS Translations understands very well. Our legal clients have coped with the changing landscape with typical professionalism. It’s our job to help them convey their message accurately, in sense and spirit. That will remain true, regardless of the outcome of the Law Commission’s consultation. If connectivity is breeding contempt, we’ll continue to demonstrate that discretion breeds respect, and service breeds satisfaction.