Reform of contempt laws considered

Lord Goldsmith plans research into the effects on juries of pre-trial media coverage

The Attorney General has announced plans for detailed research into the effects on juries of the media’s coverage of criminal cases, a step which could lead to an overhaul of the contempt laws.

In a speech last night, he said the belief that coverage before a trial in England and Wales could influence a verdict had not been properly examined. Lord Goldsmith intends the research to test the widely held assumption that the risk of prejudice is greater the nearer the reporting is to the trial, and fades over time.

He said that it might be appropriate for the public to be given more information after high-profile arrests. There was a “very proper public interest” in knowing the risks from terrorism, he said, conceding that “radio silence” could hurt public confidence in the police by giving the impression there was no good case in the first place.

The research will also analyse the “comparative impact of different forms of reporting – national and local, broadcast and print, internet reports, and so on; and how far jurors can put out of their mind reports which they have seen or heard”.

Studies in other jurisdictions have shown that pre-trial publicity has less effect on jurors than has traditionally been assumed. They suggest that crime reporting in advance of a trial has little effect on jurors in even the most sensational cases.