Attorney General will advise on Twitter contempt rules

December 4th 2013

With an increasing number of Twitter users – including those in the public eye – running the risk of breaking the law by commenting inappropriately on criminal cases, the Attorney General is set to publish guidance. Dominic Grieve QC MP says that this will prevent unfair influence on trials in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This week, Peaches Geldorf tweeted names in the case of the Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins, a move for which she has subsequently apologised. Comedian Alan Davies and House of Commons speaker's wife Sally Bercow have also run into legal difficulties by tweeting carelessly.

BBC Legal Correspondent Clive Coleman says: "The rise of social media has meant that conversations about criminal cases, once had down the pub or over the garden fence, are now instantly published online – and can be shared with thousands."

The move reinforces the fact that the internet is not a free speech zone where people are immune from saying what they want.

Recent convictions have also brought the law to bear on those breaching it. Action has been taken against three men who used Twitter and Facebook to publish recent photographs purporting to be toddler James Bulger's killers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. The men breached a worldwide injunction preventing publication of any material that could identify the two killers. And last year nine people were prosecuted after they named the woman raped by former footballer Ched Evans, on social media sites. Their defence of ignorance of the law was rejected.

In the eyes of the law, social media sites are publications subject to the same laws that apply only the mainstream media, and anybody commenting on a case or defendant in a prejudicial way could be prosecuted for contempt of court – an offence which may be punishable by imprisonment.

Dominic Grieve said: "Blogs and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook mean that individuals can now reach thousands of people with a single tweet or post. This is an exciting prospect, but it can pose certain challenges to the criminal justice system." He continued: "In days gone by, it was only the mainstream media that had the opportunity to bring information relating to a court case to such a large group of people that it could put a court case at risk. That is no longer the case and is why I have decided to publish the advisories that I have previously only issued to the media."

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