News Contempt of court consultation: “Don’t punish publishers, educate jurors”

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As the end of the Consultation on Contempt of Court approaches, leading defamation lawyer at Wiggin, Caroline Kean, warns that we must not allow those who would seek to impose onerous burdens on publishers, requiring them to edit their online archives, to try to justify their demands by seizing on the failings of the Vicky Pryce jury.

Caroline comments: “It has been reported that the jury in the Vicky Pryce trial apparently failed to grasp their function or understand the meaning of ‘reasonable doubt’. This is an exceptional situation – the judge said he had not come across such circumstances in 30 years – and it is vital that this is not seized upon by those who support the idea of ‘nanny state’ approach to the internet.

“The failings of this single jury should not be used as justification for the imposition of onerous burdens on publishers. The majority of juries are up to task and simply need appropriate guidance.

“Asking publishers or owners of online content to be responsible for removing potentially prejudicial stories from websites and archives would create an unnecessary and totally disproportionate burden. It would also require a degree of telepathy on the part of the publishers, since how can they be expected to know what the issues are or will be in each case?

“The archives should be left alone.  What is needed is clearer guidelines for jurors and stricter penalties if they are found to have acted in contempt.

“Rather than trying forlornly to stop the flow of information, the judge needs to make sure the jury understands how to weigh the respective merits of the various sources to which they are exposed – not shoot the messenger as is proposed in this Consultation.

“Leveson has recommended that Parliament should be required to protect freedom of speech. Suggesting that the media should edit archive material in advance of trials is totally incompatible with this. There is no way that all material that would need to be taken down by publishers could be put up again, leaving us with edited and inconsistent newspaper archives.

“We would urge publishers to make these points in response to the Consultation before it closes next week.”