THE use of social networking tools is threatening the sanctity of the UK’s legal system, the country’s most senior judge warned in November 2010.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, claimed that users of sites such as micro-blogging platform Twitter could flood the Internet with messages in an attempt to influence jurors’ opinions. This could pave the way for a deluge of mistrials, he argues. “We cannot stop people ‘tweeting’, but if jurors look at such material, the risks to the fairness of the trial will be very serious, and ultimately the openness of the trial process on which we all rely would be damaged,” Lord Judge told an audience in Belfast.
This is not the first time that digital media have been identified as a challenge to the legal process. In early 2009, a juror in a US drugs case admitted that he had been using Google outside court to research the defendant. Upon further enquiry, the judge found to his dismay that eight more jurors had been digging about on the Internet for the same purpose. In the end, he felt he had no choice other than to call a mistrial.
In principle, however, the process should be immune from outside pollution. In both the UK and US, jurors may only form a verdict based on the information given in court hearings.
However, breaches of this requirement are common, research suggests. Analysis published by Reuters Legal in December 2010 concluded that more than 90 verdicts handed down in the US since 1999 had been challenged due to alleged use of electronic communications during court proceedings.
More than half of these incidents have occurred in the past two years, the analysis says, suggesting that advances in mobile technology and social networking are causing the problem to snowball.
Using Twitter in the courtroom is one way of incurring the wrath of a judge, but apparently the site’s users must also watch what they say outside court. Earlier this year, UK citizen Paul Chambers ‘tweeted’ a hoax bomb threat regarding Nottingham’s Robin Hood Airport. Chambers was arrested and eventually convicted for sending a “menacing electronic communication”.
After he lost an appeal to the High Court in November, thousands of Twitter users expressed their annoyance at the decision by re-posting Chambers’ original message. Authorities have said that they have no plans to take action against those who did so.