It is one of Britain's oldest laws, but it has now been broken in the most modern of ways.
Within the oak-panelled walls of the Royal Courts of Justice, Joanne Fraill yesterday became the first juror to be prosecuted for contempt of court involving the internet. The 40-year-old mother of three sat sobbing as she listened to the details of how a multi-million-pound drugs trial on which she was a juror collapsed after she contacted one of the defendants, Jamie Sewart, 34, through Facebook. Fraill was told she faces prison and will be sentenced tomorrow.
In an ironic twist, Lord Judge interrupted Solicitor General Edward Garnier QC's opening address to remind journalists in court that the use of mobile-communication technology was acceptable. "So you can tweet away," he said grimly. As the beeps of mobile phones being switched on subsided, Mr Garnier outlined the details of a 35-minute Facebook conversation between Fraill and Sewart which took place while jury deliberations were still ongoing.
Fraill had been sitting in one of a series of trials estimated to have cost £6m and which lasted for 10 weeks. Among the defendants was Gary Knox, Sewart's boyfriend, who was later jailed for six years for drug dealing but has now demanded a retrial in light of Fraill's actions.
On 3 August last year, Fraill returned home from her day at court in Manchester and turned on her computer to conduct internet research into Knox's past – an action which was already a breach of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act. Her curiosity deepened, and she logged onto Facebook to track down Knox's girlfriend and co-defendant, Sewart, who had by then already been acquitted. The court heard how Fraill sent Sewart a message with the words: "You should know me – I have cried with you enough."
The pair then exchanged "three or four" messages before entering into an instant message web chat. Fraill's barrister, Peter Wright QC, argued that his client's conduct "was borne out of cathartic release of returning a verdict in Sewart's case and not a need to reveal or divulge". He added: "Her conduct, though reprehensible, was not calculated or designed by her to subvert the trial process."
The court heard she was "inconsolable" and "distraught" over what she had done and was "terrified at the prospect of imprisonment".
Sewart was also accused of contempt by chatting on Facebook with Fraill. She denied the charge and said she had not been attempting to learn the secrets of the jury room, but had responded to Fraill's approach because she wanted to know when the trial was going to end.
Lord Judge said Sewart would be given a suspended sentence, as she had already been separated from her child for 14 months during her own trial and had reported her online chat to her solicitor the morning after it had taken place.
After the hearing, Fraill said nothing to journalists as she left court. Sewart said: "I'm happy with a suspended sentence and just want to get home. I regret everything. She [Fraill] contacted me. My mind was in a whirlwind. I had just been acquitted. When I sat back and thought about it, I realised I should report it and I did."
The case immediately sparked debate among lawyers over the effects of social media on British courts. "The Lord Chief is absolutely determined to stop this, and rightly so. But with modern habits, I'm not sure how easy it is going to be," said leading QC Michael Wolkind, adding that in the past judges have dismissed the issue of committing contempt through the internet with "a gentle warning".
"Of course what they can't do is take away jurors' internet connection for the duration of the trial. So the only deterrent is stronger sentences – that's why it went to the Lord Chief and why they've prosecuted," he said.
The media lawyer Mark Stephens said a "proper academic study" was needed into the effects of social media on the courts. "It is clearly a matter about which a clear warning needs to be given at the start of any trial because people are so addicted to social media that they just don't think of it as any more than just a water-cooler conversation," he said.
"People certainly don't think about the implications and how it may breach their jury oath, or indeed the jeopardy that they may find themselves in," he added.
Mr Wolkind said that many jurors enjoyed the experience of "playing with a bit of power". But he warned: "Before their two weeks of power have passed, they might well want their friends to know about it. And before they know it, they are in prison while the person they were judging naturally walks free."