It is quite likely that most of us will be called upon to do jury service at some point in our lives. The recent conviction of Theodora Dallas serves as a stark warning about the duties and responsibilities of jurors. The case is also an interesting example of attempts by the courts to catch up with the rapid development and widespread use of the internet.
Theodora Dallas was called to serve on a jury hearing the case of Barry Medlock, a man standing trial for grievous bodily harm. The jurors were shown a video about their responsibilities before the trial and were warned that they were not allowed to research the case or the defendant using the internet. Notices in the jury rooms warned Dallas and her fellow jurors that to do so could result in a conviction for contempt of court. The trial judge in the hearing at the Luton Crown Court had also specifically warned jurors at the start of the trial not to use the internet or conduct their own research into the defendant.
During the trial, curiosity got the better of Dallas and she conducted internet research into the case and then told her fellow jurors about her findings. Dallas admitted that she had researched the meaning of “grievous bodily harm” online and then searched for the town in which the offence was alleged to have taken place. What she found was an online news article about Mr Medlock. The article discussed Mr Medlock’s previous conviction for his part in a rape committed by another man. She told them about Mr Medlock’s previous conviction and some of her fellow jurors objected to her having used the internet to conduct research. They then alerted the court staff and the court discharged the jury. A retrial of the defendant was ordered, at which he was found to be guilty.
Dallas’ actions were then referred to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who brought proceedings against her for contempt of court. Dallas argued that she had not completely understood warnings given to the jury, in part because she was not a native English speaker. She said that she did not think that her actions would disrupt the trial and that she had no intention to influence any of her fellow jurors.
The Administrative Court, led by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, condemned her actions and dismissed her arguments. The court held that her memory about what the jury had and hadn’t been told about using the internet was selective and that her command of English was more than sufficient to understand her instructions. The court held that she had equipped herself with evidence which had not been formally put as evidence before the court, but which might have prejudiced her against the defendant. The court condemned her waste of public money and the ordeal of a trial which the victim had to repeat due to her actions. Dallas was convicted and sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment, the last three of which will be served on licence. Lord Judge said that “misuse of the internet by a juror is always a most serious irregularity and an effective custodial sentence is virtually inevitable”.
Dallas’ conviction is one of the first of its kind in what Lord Judge described as “a relatively new area”. In June 2011, Joanne Fraill became the first juror ever convicted for contempt for using the internet, and was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment. Fraill used Facebook to exchange messages with a defendant in a trial who had already been convicted, as well as using the internet to research another defendant in the same trial whose innocence the jury was still considering.
These two cases demonstrate the tough stance the courts are beginning to take on the use of the internet and modern technology in court proceedings. The courts are, however, beginning to embrace the use of modern technology in trials where it is appropriate to do so. At the end of 2011, the Lord Chief Justice issued new Practice Guidance on the use of live-based forms of communication (including Twitter) in the court for the use of reporting cases. Journalists and legal commentators who use such forms of communication in public court sessions are no longer required to apply to the trial judge for permission to use their equipment, although the court can direct that it may not be used. The courts have traditionally been slow to respond to changes in technology and society, and it will be interesting to see the further developments they make in dealing with issues posed by an ever growing world of instantly accessible information.
If you would like any further information about the issues raised in this article please contact Alex Kingston-Splatt (firstname.lastname@example.org), or any other member of Goodman Derrick LLP’s Dispute Resolution Team on 0207 040 0606.
This guide is for general information and interest only and should not be relied upon as providing specific legal advice.
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