A juror on a drugs trial in Manchester, England, last year now faces jail time after she allagedly contacted and had a Facebook conversation with a Defendant. The full article is here so I don’t intend to repeat it in full. Just in brief though, the juror is alleged to have contacted the Defendant and the contact led the judge to discharge the jury in a 10-week drugs trial. The alleged contact occurred after the Defendant had already been acquitted but the jury was still in the process of reaching verdicts on other defendants.
The juror is also indicated to have conducted internet research on defendants, despite instructions from the judge to only decide the case on the evidence in court. Such instructions are now commonplace, partly because of the prevalence of members of the media reporting trial progress and issues around the trial that might not be known to jurors and also because of the risk of internet-based communications and access to knowldge outside that provided in the court room. Both the juror and the former Defendant now face up to two years in prison for contempt of court.
Reference is also made in the article above to a speech given last year by the English Lord Chief Justice in which he expressed concerns about technology and how it could be used by jurors to access information in relation to a case on which they were sitting. He indicated that “…in my view, if the jury system is to survive as the system for a fair trial in which we all believe and support, the misuse of the internet by jurors must stop.” He also acknowledges though that there are enormous challenges with this – how does the criminal justice system ‘police’ what jurors do via electronic technology during a trial?
Another of the Lord Chief Justice’s insights was that the way children now learn is very different from the past. Much of their schoolwork is “done by absorbing information from machines. They consult and refer to the internet. When they do so they are not listening. They do not, as we did, sit in class for 40 minutes listening to the masters and mistresses providing us with information. They are provided with information in written form, which they assimilate into their own technology.” He goes on to make a very valid point, one that I had not previously considered (possibly because I am old enough to have had to learn to do this at school and I have not recently had to sit and watch a class of 14 year olds try to learn). He said, “…what this form of education lacks is training in the ability to sit still and listen, and I emphasise, listen and think, I repeat, listen and think simultaneously, for prolonged periods. Yet that is an essential requirement for every juror.”
In essence it seems we may be heading towards an era (or are we already there?) in which jurors defy the judge’s directions about avoiding seeking information about the case on which they are sitting and in which at least some of the twelve people on the jury are incapable of concentrating on the issues at hand. I think that NZ’s approach to the court day may alleviate the latter in that there are morning and afternoon tea breaks in addition to the lunch break. But does this break-time provide jurors with more opportunity to access the digital world of information?
What is the answer? Will we end up in a world where jurors are required to be retained at court for the duration of a trial in rooms with signal-blocking technology and only an analogue telephone connection to the outside world? Or will putting jurors in prison for contempt of court be sufficient to stop the internet investigations that they apparently undertake? Or perhaps something else?