Social media users warned about contempt of court
British attorney general to begin issuing legal warnings on prejudicial comments
Twitter users are to be issued with warnings if they make any potentially prejudicial statements. Photograph: PA
Britain’s attorney general is to begin issuing legal warnings to steer Twitter users away from prejudicial comments that might force trials to be abandoned.
Advisory notices – already issued confidentially to print and broadcast media about controversial or emotive trials – will now be flagged up via the attorney general’s website and Twitter feed (@AGO_UK).
Attorney general Dominic Grieve’s decision to share warnings is recognition that social media conversations are increasingly opinion-forming.
He hopes to prevent people without legal training inadvertently publishing remarks that could technically be contempt of court, requiring a judge to discharge a jury in order to ensure adverse publicity did not undermine a fair trial.
“Blogs and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook mean individuals can now reach thousands of people with a single tweet or post,” he said.
This is “exciting” but can pose certain challenges to the criminal justice system. He added: “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.
“This is not about telling people what they can or cannot talk about on social media; quite the opposite in fact – it’s designed to help facilitate commentary in a lawful way.
“I hope that by making this information available to the public at large, we can help stop people from inadvertently breaking the law, and make sure that cases are tried on the evidence, not what people have found online.
“This change also brings more openness to government’s dealings with the media so that both sides can be accountable to the public for what they do and say.”
On average, the attorney general’s office issues around five advisories a year although there have already been 10 this year due to high-profile court cases.
The new, publicly available advisories may be expressed in more general terms to avoid drawing attention to areas of specific legal concern about cases, Mr Grieve said.
The tweets, limited to 140 characters, are unlikely to be able to provide sufficient detail on their own and will link back to the full warning on the AG’s website.
Judges have had to abandon trials in the past because of misleading articles being published but no Twitter storm has yet halted a court hearing.
The attorney general said he usually issued advisories “when it’s clear that things are starting to go wrong … [AND]when I have a clear sense that problems are developing.”
Asked whether Twitter warnings might be counter-productive and stir up interest in sensitive trials, Mr Grieve said: “The evidence we have is that if the story starts to get widespread, public interest, I don’t think we will be encouraging people [to make comments].”
The publicised distribution of legal warnings may make it harder in future for users of Facebook or Twitter to claim they made comments in ignorance of the law.
“If there were a case where there were breaches of the Contempt of Court Act and it was quite clear they had access to our tweets, then it would reduce any plea in mitigation,” Mr Grieve said.
The text of every advisory is approved by the attorney general or the solicitor general, Oliver Heald QC.
It is possible that knowledge of their existence could in future encourage lawyers to approach the department to ask for more frequent interventions.
Mr Grieve said he believed social media users should be more aware of potential legal pitfalls.
“As social media gathers pace,” he said, “I think schools may be well advised to provide a lesson about the responsibility of users – not just in relation to libel or contempt.”