What is the law regarding media influence in criminal trials?

 

Media influence in criminal trials has been a much-debated issue. Many studies have been performed looking at whether press has influenced jurors and caused them to make a different decision to the one they would have made based only on the evidence presented at the trial.

Of course, media influence is not only harmful, and there can be benefits to significant press attention. For example, press coverage can mean that witnesses, who otherwise would not have known of the incident, can come forward and present their evidence.

Visit our criminal law pages for more legal information on this topic.

The right to a fair trial

Every person charged with a criminal offence has the right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, as enacted into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

In the case of media coverage and adverse publicity, if the jury are likely to be swayed by excessive media coverage and this affects the defendant’s right to a fair trial, then the court must do something to mitigate the unfairness to the defendant or dismiss the case altogether.

Negative impacts on trial judgements

There have been many cases in which a conviction has had to be quashed, or a trial stayed on the grounds of abuse of process, because of adverse pre-trial publicity.

In the case of R v Taylor and Taylor the Court of Appeal confirmed the principle created in R v McCann, that if media coverage created a substantial risk of prejudice to the defendants, the convictions should be regarded as unsafe and quashed.

The prejudice may be such that a re-trial is not possible because a fair trial cannot take place.

Prejudicing juries

If a court decides that the jury is prejudiced by media coverage there are a number of options. The court may decide to stay or quash proceedings and may or may not decide to order a re-trial. The court may decide that the prejudice caused can be remedied by the judge directing the jury on the issue.

This was seen recently when a judge warned a jury to ignore the Prime Minister’s widely reported prejudicial remarks about a case.
The judge may also decide that the risk of prejudice is slight due to time elapsed, or because a jury is not present and the trial may go ahead.

There has recently been a lot of discussion amongst the judiciary regarding the use of the social media site Twitter from the court room. The Lord Chief Justice ruled that journalists can Tweet from the court room as long as it doesn’t interfere with the administration of justice.

However, they must apply for permission from the trial judge first, and this is likely to be refused in ongoing criminal trials.

If you would like to obtain legal advice on a criminal trial, we can put you in touch with a local specialist criminal defence solicitor free of charge. Please call us on 0800 046 1464 or complete the web-form above.

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