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Jurors 'should face prosecution'
Jurors who do internet or other research about the cases on which they are sitting should face criminal prosecution rather than proceedings for contempt of court, the Law Commission has said.
The recommendation follows a number of cases in which jurors have been jailed for using the internet to find more information about cases than was being presented to them in the evidence.
At present, the judges at criminal trials give jurors directions about they should and should not do - and they face action for contempt of court if they disobey those instructions.
But the Law Commission says each judge sets the precise limits on what jurors may do in each case, which leads to inconsistency and can generate confusion - and also means that each judge is responsible for setting the boundaries of what is, in all but name, a criminal offence.
But the recommendations meant that the limits of what jurors could do would be laid down by Parliament in statute, said a Law Commission spokesman.
"The Commission's recommendations will also help to clarify for jurors what they can expect if they do search for information on the trial," he said.
"Jurors accused of this form of contempt are currently tried in an unusual procedure in the Divisional Court.
"Under the Commission's recommendations, jurors who search for information in this way would be committing a criminal offence and be tried in the Crown Court in the usual way."
The Law Commission also recommends extending the defences available to jurors who disclose their concerns after a trial that there had been a miscarriage of justice.
At present, jurors can alert the court if they are worried about the way in which a jury's deliberations are taking place.
But, the Commission's spokesman said, there would be some cases in which jurors needed to report concerns after a case was over.
The Commission is recommending that if proceedings had concluded, a juror who feared that there had been a miscarriage of justice should be able to take his or her concerns not only to the court but also to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the police.
The Commission is also recommending creating an exception to the ban on asking jurors about their deliberations to enable approved researchers to investigate how juries reach their decisions.
Professor David Ormerod QC, the Law Commissioner heading the contempt project, said: "We are recommending a package of reforms that would strike a balance between the public interest in the administration of justice, the defendant's right to a fair trial and the rights of jurors.
"Jurors are already prohibited from seeking information related to a trial but which is not presented as evidence. Putting this prohibition on a statutory footing would bring greater clarity and certainty for both courts and juries.
"Members of the jury would know the rules, the wrongdoing could be prosecuted in the same way as other crimes, and jurors accused of contempt would benefit from the normal protections of the criminal trial process."
He added: "It is in the interests of justice that any misconduct by jury members is brought to light, including during the process of reaching a verdict. Our reforms would extend the opportunities jurors have to report concerns, by enabling them to report to specific responsible bodies after the trial.
"The delivery of justice can only benefit from a greater understanding of how juries reach a verdict. Academic research into jurors' conduct has been enormously helpful and, by allowing approved academics to research how juries conduct their deliberations, we would have an even more complete picture of how they work."
Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC said: "Juror contempt is a serious risk to justice but people are often not aware of the consequences.
"The Law Commission's proposal to make it an offence for jurors to search for information about their case on the internet or by other means would make the position absolutely clear and would, I hope, reduce the need for future prosecutions."
He was grateful to the Law Commission, which had attempted to strike a very careful balance between freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial, he said, adding: "I will now need to discuss the recommendations carefully with my Government colleagues before we respond formally."
The Law Commission recommendations come after a series of cases in which jurors have faced proceedings for contempt after researching cases on the internet.
In July, Joseph Beard, 29, was jailed for two months after being found to have committed contempt while sitting as a juror at a trial at Kingston Crown Court by doing internet research about the case.
In January last year, university lecturer Dr Theodora Dallas was jailed for six months - she was ordered to serve half of the term, with the rest spent on licence - after telling fellow jurors that she had discovering on the internet that the defendant in the trial in which they were sitting had once been accused of rape.
Dr Dallas is now trying to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.