It is now common for people to turn to Google or social media to look up people and topics of interest.
- The Tasmania Law Reform Institute says juror misconduct is not new, but social media provides new avenues for bad behaviour
- The institute is researching the conduct of jurors to produce a report on the issue next year
- In 2015, Launceston court staff found in a jury room three pages printed from a US website explaining legal terms
But this can be problematic when the person doing the searching is member of a jury in a criminal trial and they are looking up the defendant, the victim, or even legal terms.
The Tasmania Law Reform Institute has released an issues paper examining jurors’ use of the internet and social media.
Author Jemma Holt said she believed the issue was under-reported.
Ms Holt pointed to a 2015 Launceston case in which two defendants were found guilty of aggravated assault and wounding.
Court staff later found three pages printed from a US website explaining the legal terms “beyond reasonable doubt” and “circumstantial evidence”.
On appeal, the court ruled that a procedural irregularity had occurred, but the appeal was ultimately dismissed.
“What we surmised from this is this case may very well represent the tip of the iceberg in the Tasmanian jurisdiction,” Ms Holt said.
The Tasmania Law Reform Institute will look at a wide range of jurors’ online conduct, including jurors becoming “friends” on social media, looking up victims and defendants, and disclosing their opinions on the case.
Submissions on the paper are open until October 4, with a report to be made to the Tasmanian Attorney-General by early 2020.
Jurors ‘researching’ people in court
The research was based on the “fundamental premise” that a criminal jury must be fair, Ms Holt said.
“There’s a huge range of potential juror misconduct of this kind, and certainly one of the most common ones are jurors conducting research about the people they see in the courtroom,” Ms Holt said.
“It is in some senses a behavioural thing that a lot of people use social media on a daily basis to look up people they’re interested in, and this behaviour can simply continue when they’re sitting as jurors but have much greater consequences than the casual ‘stalking’.”
In a NSW case referenced in the institute’s issues paper, one juror searched online for a photo of the dead victim.
They said: “I just wanted to see his face … that poor boy, and I just wanted to see his face without injuries, anything, just see him … put a face to the name.”
In 2010, in the UK, a juror exchanged up to 50 Facebook messages with the accused during a drug trial involving multiple people.
Misuse can be inadvertent
But Ms Holt said some jurors inadvertently misused social media during criminal trials.
“The fact [is] that jurors can use social media for entertainment purposes as they normally would on a daily basis, and fall into the trap so to speak of accidentally or inadvertently coming across material they shouldn’t, or expressing details online through their media presence that ultimately have a prejudicial impact on the trial,” she said.
“The internet’s not going anywhere, and it also follows that juror misconduct is not a new thing.
“It’s just with social media and the internet; there’s a whole host of different ways jurors can potentially fall foul by their behaviour.”