Law Commission – First Report published on Contempt

Introduction

We have previously looked at the consultation paper issued by the Law Commission in relation to Contempt of Court. On 9th December 2013 the first of their reports was issued.

 

What have they said?

The report is a lengthy one. The main recommendations are :

  • A new (either way offence – maximum sentence : 2 years) criminal offence that would be committed by a juror who deliberately sought out information about the trial they are hearing.
  • Additionally to that, a raft of amendments to the trial procedure including :”greater education in schools about the role and importance of jury service; improving the information provided to jurors about their obligations during jury service; changes to the wording of the juror oath to include an agreement to base the verdict only on the evidence heard in court; requiring jurors to sign a written declaration; informing jurors about asking questions during the trial; a statutory power for judges to remove internet-enabled devices from jurors where necessary and effective systems for jurors to report concerns.”
  • Exceptions to the strict rules prohibiting questioning of jurors to allow (1) jurors to inform the authorities if there is a real risk of a miscarriage of justice having occurred and, (2) for the purposes of academic research.
  • No change to the definition of ‘publication’ (on the basis that it is not practical).
  • Exemption from liability for contempt if it something that is published prior to the proceedings starting. This is unless the AG issues a notice to the relevant body requesting them to take the material down.

 

What happens now?

Some of the suggestions (particularly in relation to what is told to jurors) can be implemented without a change in the law. We would imagine that the Criminal Procedure Rules Committee will consult on this particular aspects.

Other parts (such as creating a new criminal offence) requires an Act of Parliament. The Attorney-General will have a full consideration of the report and decide which, if any, the Government will put forward to the House of Commons.

This is unlikely to be a quick process, but will probably feature next year.

 

Are these suggestions sensible?

I’m not generally in favour of the creation of new criminal offences (there are far too many already), but this does have the advantage of by meaning that an individual accused can have a trial by jury rather than by a Judge.

Whilst I can see the advantage of not defining publication further, at some point the question of how the Contempt laws deal with the internet will have to be addressed. Was this an opportunity missed?

Creating the exemption for prior publication seems a sensible one. The fact that liability will be excluded unless the AG notifies the relevant publisher (which may include an individual blogger or tweeter) indicates that this will only be in a small number of cases.

All in all, there are a modest set of proposals which can be supported. It may be said that it is not what is in the report, but what is not recommended by the Law Commission, that is of most interest. We will digest the report (and the responses) and may come back to the report later.

 

Gianni Sonvico

At the start of the paper there is a dedication to Gianni Sonvico. He was a young barrister who had worked at the Law Commission on this report and who sadly died on the 25th October of this year.

Gianni Sovico -  23rd May 1990-25th October 2013

                      Gianni Sovico –
23rd May 1990-25th October 2013

 

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