Here's how comments on social media comments can hinder court cases

The rise of social media has presented a new problem for the legal system and one it is still grappling with.

Saturday, 9th February 2019, 3:05 pm
Updated Saturday, 9th February 2019, 3:12 pm
Rosie Darbyshire was found dead in Preston last week and her boyfriend has been charged with her murder

That's why in 2013, the then attorney general Dominic Grieve, announced plans to discourage social media users on Facebook and Twitter from jeopardising court cases by publishing potentially prejudicial comments.

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PICTURED: Rosie Darbyshire's boyfriend Benjamin Topping appears in court for the first time charged with her murder
Rosie Darbyshire was found dead in Preston last week and her boyfriend has been charged with her murder

However, the government appears to be still grappling with how best to tackle the problem and in 2017 it began a consultation entitled 'The impact of social media on the administration of justice'.

Evidence is still being gathered on that consultation and its findings are yet to be published.

How can comments prejudice trials?

Social media users can now be warned if their comment risk a fair trial

The Contempt of Court 1981 lays out clear guidelines for the media when reporting on criminal cases and these guidelines also apply to any publisher, and that includes any individual using social media as the companies themselves, such as Facebook and Twitter, are not publishers and are therefore not subject to the same liabilities as publishers of newspapers.

Every junior reporter learns the guiding principals of the Contempt of Court Act by heart but put simply it means that nothing should be published that might mean the defendant does not get a fair trial.

That includes details of any previous convictions or anything that implies they are guilty.

Prior to a trial, the media can only publish a limited number of details about the case, such as the particulars of the charge.

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve introduced a system of legal warnings to social media users

An important principle of open justice is that, in most circumstances, the name of the defendant should also be published.

Do social media comment hamper criminal trials?

They can do.

At the start of the current case of a former police chief charged over the Hillsborough disaster, the judge made it clear jurors were to ignore social media comments.

Many media organisations have chosen not to share their stories about the ongoing court case of former police chief David Duckenfield

And campaigners have repeatedly asked people not to comment on the trial in case they hamper the chances of a fair trial.

Many media organisations have chosen not to share their stories on this case on social media in order to avoid the risk of prejudicial comments being made on an ongoing case.

What does the law have to say?

In 2013, the then attorney general, Dominic Grieve, was very clear that social media comments could have a harmful effect.

He said: "Blogs and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook mean individuals can now reach thousands of people with a single tweet or post.

"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."