The Jury’s Out – contempt and intimidation

18th August 2023

This morning, as I was scrolling through my news feeds, I came across two articles regarding jurors, highlighting just how archaic and dangerous the law in this country and the US can be.

One article, my local newspaper, the Waltham Forest Echo, described how 40 people, including an Olympic gold medallist and a formal government lawyer, have signed a letter calling on the Solicitor General to charge them with contempt, in solidarity, if a 68 year old is prosecuted.

The woman at the centre of this story is a Walthamstow resident and retired social worker. She faces contempt of court charges for allegedly holding a sign directed at jurors outside a criminal trial in London. The trial was of four climate activists who were charged with causing a public nuisance by blocking traffic on a busy London road.  The placard she (allegedly) held read: “Jurors: You have an absolute right to acquit a defendant according to your conscience.” The jury ended up convicting the four climate activists.

However, the trial judge had imposed an order that the protestors on trial must not mention climate change in their defence to the jury. He directed the jury that they should decide the case based on the evidence before them, leaving aside any beliefs they may have about climate change. Quite apart from this, like any British jury, they would have made an oath to come to the verdict based on the evidence before them.

The retiree may be prosecuted for “contempt in the face of the court attempting to influence the jury.” The case has been referred to the Attorney General and has caused outrage.

Meanwhile, across the Pond, in Georgia US, the New York Times reported that threats of violence have been made against grand jurors in the Trump racketeering case regarding the 2020 presidential election. A ‘hit list’ including their names and addresses was posted online with posters inciting others to harass them and make them ‘infamous’. Remarkably, Georgian state law dictates that grand jurors’ names be made public on the indictment, for transparency reasons. This then allowed people to dox, bully and intimidate them. Interference with jurors in the US is unfortunately not uncommon but fortunately Georgia’s policy of publishing grand juror names is rare among the US state court system.

Britain and the US clearly treat their jurors very differently. In our country the law of contempt can go too far in infringing on other rights, like freedom to protest and freedom of expression. In the US, jurors can be hand-picked and their minds can be influenced and sullied by external factors – we only have to look at the O.J. Simpson and Johnny Depp cases. Whichever jurisdiction, the way in which we treat jurors needs to move with the times and recognise that, with social media and the internet, law and procedure needs to progress to reflect this. Gone are the days of ’12 Angry Men’.