Googling jurors to face charges?

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 11:51 19/05/2014

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Curious jurors who Google an accused person's history could find themselves before the courts under changes proposed by the Law Commission.

At a media conference this morning commission president Sir Grant Hammond said the use of the internet and social media had changed the way people accessed information.

Changes to the law of contempt to address the risks that jurors accessing material through the internet posed to a defendant's right to be fairly tried were needed, he said.

"We have a fairly stark choice to make. We can either come down hard in the way the English courts have on those jurors who break the rules and look for information relating to their cases on the internet, or we can take a more proactive approach and try to steer jurors away from such conduct in a more conciliatory way."

While a new offence was an option, Hammond said punishing a citizen while they were undertaking a civic duty could be considered harsh and other proactive options such as more education and better guidelines were an option.

Last year Auckland man David McAllister was convicted after telling a judge he was too busy at work to sit on the jury.

The suggestions are part of a larger review of the law of contempt by the commission, who say the legislation is outdated.

Designed to protect a defendant's right to a fair trial, the current laws had been developed in a "piecemeal fashion" by judges and would be better replaced with a statutory restriction on publicly disclosing a defendant's previous convictions or concurrent charges.

This would mean any decision to publish potentially prejudicial material would not be made by the publisher, as it would be prohibited for a limited period while there is a trial.

"In the area of publication contempt, we propose a much more targeted approach to protecting an accused's right to a fair trial from prejudicial publicity."

An application could be made for an order permitting publication on specific grounds under the proposed changes.

Judge Peter Boshier, the commissioner leading the review, said it was important jurors were not afraid to undertake their duties.

When it came to reporting, he believed the current unclear situation meant some media decided not to publish anything because they did not want to breach contempt law.

This was not ideal and he hoped changes would allow media more freedom to publish details, as long as they did not prejudice a fair trial.

"We really want to make a bright line in the sand about what is permitted and what isn't, and hopefully that results in a major boost to media freedom."

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Submissions on the commission's paper close on August 22.

- The Dominion Post

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