Jurors Googling the defendant whose case they are hearing to find out information that they shouldn't know; Jurors befriending the defendant of the case they are hearing on Facebook; Twitter users ignoring court rulings and tweeting prohibited information and pictures to a mass audience, instantly and indelibly. With over 30 million Facebook users and 10 million active Twitter accounts, social media holds a dominating place in today’s society, and its impact on the workings of the justice system is beginning to be felt.
In recent months Twitter, and other social media platforms, have been invited into the courtroom to allow for instantaneous reporting; a positive use of modern technology in a rather archaic setting.
However, with the benefits there also comes the potential for abuse, which can lead to the collapse of criminal trials and, ultimately, to justice not being done. With the news today that pictures purporting to be of Jon Venables have appeared online despite a worldwide injunction preventing this exact thing, it is becoming clear that our current laws are not adequate to deal with the rapid development and use of social media.
The UK contempt of court laws are focused on regulating publishers and journalists and not individual members of the general public, but with social media everyone is potentially now a publisher, and the law cannot, it seems, deal with this. Consultation to rectify this is underway and reforms to the law are in the pipeline but changing the law is a slow process, and is much slower than the technological advances it attempts to police; it is likely that by the time the law has been amended to deal with the current threats posed to the justice system by the abuse of the social media laws then new ways to abuse the system, that hadn't been anticipated or legislated for, will have developed.
Jo Boylan-Kemp is principal lecturer at Nottingham Law School