Advisory notes from the Attorney General were published on the Gov.uk website and Twitter on Wednesday to help prevent social media users from committing a contempt of court, Dominic Grieve QC MP has announced.
The advisories, which have previously only been issued to print and broadcast media outlets on a ‘not for publication’ basis, are designed to make sure that a fair trial takes place and warn people that comment on a particular case needs to comply with the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Dominic Grieve QC said it was designed to make sure fair trials took place.
The rise in usage of social media such as Facebook and Twitter means that conversation which historically would have been had in person are now published online instantly and go viral rapidly.
The Attorney General has previously taken action in relation to three men who were prosecuted having used social media platforms to publish photographs alleging to bear the faces of the murderers of James Bulger as grown ups. This breached an injunction preventing publication of any material that could identify the two killers, Robert Thompson and John Venables.
In 2012, nine individuals were prosecuted for posting the identity of the woman raped by former Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans, on various social media sites. All nine claimed that they were not aware it was an offence to name the victim of a sexual offence, however, this is not a defence.
Facebook and Twitter are subject to the same laws that in practice used to apply only to the mainstream media. Anyone commenting about a case or defendant in a way that could prejudice a trial could be prosecuted for contempt of court and be fined or imprisoned.
Mr Grieve said:
“Blogs and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook mean that individuals can now reach thousands of people with a single tweet or post.
“This is an exciting prospect, but it can pose certain challenges to the criminal justice system.
“In days gone by, it was only the mainstream media that had the opportunity to bring information relating to a court case to such a large group of people that it could put a court case at risk.
“That is no longer the case and is why I have decided to publish the advisories that I have previously only issued to the media.”
Mr Grieve denied this was a policy to regulate what people could say but that instead the change in policy is designed to help inform the public about the legal pitfalls of commenting in a way which could be seen as prejudicial to a court case or those involved. He has given a series of interviews to the media on Wednesday to publicise the moves.
The social media advisories are published on the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) section of the Gov.uk website and also through the AGO’s twitter feed, @AGO_UK.