Better juror education will protect fair trials

By Tony Zhang|27 January 2020

The Tasmania Law Reform Institute has recommended improved education for jurors to stop inappropriate use of social media and the internet during criminal trials.

Jemma Holt, acting executive officer (Research) of Tasmania Law Reform Institute and author of the report said: “Education by Tasmanian courts is key to ensuring jurors understand why they are being asked to limit their internet use and to encourage self-regulation during the period of the trial for the benefit of the accused, and the justice system more generally.”  

In the latest report after a yearlong inquiry into courts and the information age, the TLRI has recommended improvements to the training and information that prospective jurors receive at the courthouse before they are chosen as jurors along with the directions that jurors are given by the judge once they are chosen to sit on a trial.   

“Jurors who conduct research outside the trial process, intentionally or unintentionally read news or social media commentary about the trial, or who publish about the trial on social media, can undermine the protections offered to the accused in a fair trial,” Ms Holt said.  

Juries are supposed to consider evidence without influence or bias from the outside world. However, the unlimited access to the use of the internet and social media becomes an increasing threat to undermine this along with significant consequences for Australia’s criminal justice system and those within it.

In the past, juror communications during trial hours and even after them could be controlled. However, a shift in the way people access all forms of news, information and communications in the modern age has changed this reality.  

A jurors’ online activity is largely undetectable and unquantifiable and courts cannot effectively police smartphone use.

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TLRI’s wide-ranging research and community consultation on this topic showed there was a widespread perception that juror misconduct of this kind is prevalent in Tasmania.

“Such a perception is just as capable of undermining public confidence in the criminal justice system,” Ms Holt said.

In the past, notable juror misconducts have also happened outside of Tasmania such as the West Australian juror obtaining methylamphetamine production information online, the two South Australian jurors who conducted online searches about the accused which disclosed past outlaw motorcycle gang affiliations in 2016 along with a NSW juror sitting in a sexual offending trial posting on Facebook the day before the guilty verdict was returned.

In those few instances where reports are made, fellow jurors, rather than court officers, tend to be the ones who raise the issue according to the report. 

While jurors across Australia are currently told not to conduct online research, wilful disobedience becomes only part of the problem. It can also involve unintentional acts by jurors who believe they are doing the right thing.

“Many jurors simply don’t appreciate the consequences of such behaviour in the context of their role and obligations as a juror,” Ms Holt said. 

“It is for the courts to adapt to meet these new challenges.”

The TLRI has ultimately concluded it is impossible for, and beyond the capacity of courts to completely police juror internet use. It has thus recommended not reforming the law, but rather strengthening and standardising juror education and directions.

Better juror education will protect fair trials
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