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December 4, 2013updated 19 Dec 2013 3:33pm

Attorney General to issue advisories to the public following Peaches Geldof contempt tweets

By Darren Boyle

Attorney General Dominic Grieve will issue social media users advisories during controversial court cases to help prevent future contempt issues.

This follows Press Gazette’s revelation that Peaches Geldof had published the names of two women convicted of allowing their children to be abused by Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins.

Geldof posted the names online from her personal Twitter account for more than four hours before removing them on the advice of fellow Twitter users.

 

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South Wales Police and the Crown Prosecution Service are currently investigating the matter. 

In the past, Grieve has issued advisories to print and broadcast media outlets on a “not for publication basis”. But now because of the risk posed by members of the public discussing cases online, he has decided to change his policy.  

He said the main purpose of the new rules was to ensure that fair trials can continue to take place.

Grieve said: "Blogs and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook mean that individuals can now reach thousands of people with a single tweet or post.

"This is an exciting prospect, but it can pose certain challenges to the criminal justice system.

"In days gone by, it was only the mainstream media that had the opportunity to bring information relating to a court case to such a large group of people that it could put a court case at risk.

"That is no longer the case and is why I have decided to publish the advisories that I have previously only issued to the media.

"This is not about telling people what they can or cannot talk about on social media – quite the opposite in fact, it's designed to help facilitate commentary in a lawful way.

"I hope that by making this information available to the public at large, we can help stop people from inadvertently breaking the law, and make sure that cases are tried on the evidence, not what people have found online.

"This change also brings more openness to Government's dealings with the media so that both sides can be accountable to the public for what they do and say."

Members of the public will be able to view the advisories on the Attorney General’s website or follow his twitter feed @AGO_UK.

The Attorney General has issued ten media advisories so far this year. The average on a normal year is just five. 

Nick Armstrong, Parter at Charles Russell LLP said he was surprised it has taken the Attorney General so long to act on the issue of contempt on social media during criminal proceedings. 

He said: “It takes something extreme – the rule is that there's a contempt of court when a publication 'creates a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced'. It's strict liability too – the intention of the 'publisher' is irrelevant.

“The announcement is better than nothing – there's common sense in the AG giving himself this ability to warn off the twittersphere, as a social media comment occasionally does achieve the sort of prominence which could start to get close to the 'risk' area – but questionable how much effect such alerts by the AG are likely to have in practice. The revelation of a defendant's previous convictions (one classic instance of a contempt) is as likely to happen thoughtlessly as deliberately, and is the issuing of a warning by the AG going to stop that? Probably not. But it can't be wrong to give the sort of advice which is now planned."

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