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Contempt cops to cuff Manx Facebooker?

Contempt of Court

Contempt of Court – worst charge since the Light Brigade

Well, here we go again – poor understanding of law puts an Isle of Man Facebook user at risk of going to jail.

“But it’s only Facebook!”

Hardly. It risks interfering with an ongoing criminal case – and trust me, Contempt of Court is not something you want to be charged with.

Yes, it’s good old Manannan’s Review again. I have nothing personal against the views he expresses (despite rumours of some sort of spat from the Celtic League), but I’m horrified by the lack of understanding of how the justice system works.

Not to mention the risk of entirely derailing a criminal case, potentially letting someone who could be convicted walk away scot free.

Contempt of Court is a charge that covers a very wide remit – from wolf whistling at jurors, to taking photos in a courtroom and mocking judges, to posting on social media when you should be listening to evidence.

Court in the Act

The important part of the law as a publisher is this: you are guilty if you create a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing proceedings. Note: not actually prejudicing them, just creating a risk.

Guidance from the UK for social media - note the "previous convictions" part!

Guidance from the UK for social media – note the “previous convictions” part!

Among other things, that means telling potential jurors about previous convictions – every court case is heard on its own merits. Just because you’ve committed a crime in the past doesn’t mean you have committed the crime you’re now accused of.

Trials don’t hear about previous convictions for exactly that reason. Your past criminal record only comes into play if you’re found guilty and sentenced.

Generally, judges frown on repeat offenders and impose harsher sentences, but juries come to their verdicts based solely on the evidence before them – not the past behaviour of someone accused of a crime.

But if you’re a juror in an assault trial and read on Facebook that somebody’s got a couple of previous convictions for assault, ask yourself: “Would that make me more likely to return a guilty verdict during this assault trial?”

If the answer is yes, you’ve been prejudiced – and that Facebook post is in contempt.

Trial by (social) media

The Fred West case is the one taught to journalists. Could Fred West have had a fair trial, given the media coverage of the House of Horrors at the time? Probably not – everybody in Britain had heard the name Fred West or read something of his alleged crimes.

Defence lawyers fight for their clients, and claiming they can’t get a fair trial is a great way of sidestepping a case. Nobody would ever know if they were responsible because the charges would be abandoned.

In Fred West’s case, the UK media avoided the issue when he killed himself before a trial started. But imagine being the person who’d given him a “get out of jail free” card?

And that’s only the moral risk. There’s also the risk to your own liberty.

Interfering in the criminal justice system is taken very, very seriously indeed by the courts. Committing Contempt of Court is a very easy way to go to jail – I remember an editor on Merseyside being ordered to appear before a judge after potentially derailing a trial unintentionally. The judge said “And tell him to pack a bag”.

In that case, a grovelling apology, retraction, and very good legal representation managed to dissuade the judge from sending him to prison that afternoon. And that whole case blew up that morning.

Contempt case in point

So what’s Manannan’s Review been up to?

He’s written about an active case, naming the defendant and pointing out two previous convictions and an acquittal. I’m not linking to the post because I don’t want the police on my doorstep.

There are three weeks before the case is next in court.

It’s clearly Contempt of Court. I’d imagine the advocate involved will rub their hands together and complain to police, who’ll investigate.

Contempt of Court is a “strict liability” criminal offence. It doesn’t matter whether you intended to commit it or not, only that you have actually done so.

So is there a defence for Contempt of Court?

Sort of. “Innocent publication” says:

“A person is not guilty of contempt of court under the strict liability rule as the publisher of any matter to which that rule applies if at the time of publication (having taken all reasonable care) he does not know and has no reason to suspect that relevant proceedings are active.”

So did Manannan suspect proceedings were active? Absolutely. He’s writing about them as an active case and even points out the next court appearance date.

There goes the defence.

There’ll be no courts where he’s going. Oh, wait…

Amusingly, Manannan also demands to know why local journalists aren’t talking about the case more. They know better than to risk jail time.

It may be, unlike those reporters, he didn’t know the law surrounding court cases. Worryingly few people do.

But that won’t help him when he’s up answering his own charges.

Contempt of Court is just one of the legal hazards all companies face if they have a social media presence, and it’s something I can train your staff to avoid. If you had no idea a  seemingly innocent Facebook post could land you in jail, click here to find out about our social media essentials course.

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