Facebook and Twitter users to be given legal warnings

Dominic Grieve

Attorney General will issue advice to prevent social media users committing contempt of court

LAST UPDATED AT 11:36 ON Wed 4 Dec 2013

TWITTER and Facebook users will be given legal warnings to a bid to prevent them inadvertently committing contempt of court.

From today, Attorney General Dominic Grieve will begin issuing advisory notices to prevent people from breaking the law – for example, by revealing a person's identity protected by the courts or forcing a trial to be abandoned.

The legal warnings are already issued confidentially to print and broadcast media about cases that usually involve high-profile or emotive trials, such as the murder of Tia Sharp, Sgt Danny Nightingale's court martial and the arrest of Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates.

The Attorney General's office issues around five advisories a year, although there have been ten so far in 2013. They will now be flagged up on the Attorney General's website and Twitter feed when they are published.

Several people have found themselves in trouble after breaking the laws of contempt online. Last year, nine people were fined for naming a woman raped by footballer Ched Evans and one man was given a suspended prison sentence after tweeting images of a man he claimed to be Jon Venables, one of the Jamie Bulger's killers who had been given a new identity.

Most recently, Peaches Geldof had to apologise after tweeting the names of two mothers whose babies were abused by the Welsh rock singer Ian Watkins. So far no trial has been abandoned because of a tweet, says The Guardian.

Greive said that it was "exciting" that individuals can now reach thousands of people with a single tweet or post on social media sites, but said it can pose certain challenges to the criminal justice system.

The Attorney General said that his advisories tended to be issued "when it's clear that things are starting to go wrong" and he has a "clear sense that problems are developing". He added that the new warnings were "not about telling people what they can or cannot talk about on social media" but are designed to "help facilitate commentary in a lawful way". · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.