Jurors putting trials at risk by using Google, warn lawyers
Published 17/05/2010 | 05:00
JURORS who use Google are posing an increasing threat to the country's trial system, legal officials believe.
There is growing concern over the ready access to online information on accused persons and the background to trials on which juries sit.
Internet search engines such as Google are so powerful that the information can be available instantly if a juror decides to undertake personal research.
But the consequences for the criminal trial system can be catastrophic. In the past fortnight a major sex offence trial collapsed after a juror googled the accused person's name and found background information.
The juror's action emerged after the alleged victim had given evidence to the court. The woman, who was the main witness in the case, will now have to relive the experience when a new trial date is set.
Last year a similar trial almost collapsed when a juror also googled the name of the man on trial. However, he discovered nothing of relevance and the trial was allowed to continue.
A leading criminal lawyer confirmed to the Irish Independent that many of his colleagues as well as judges were particularly concerned about the incidence of jurors googling individuals or facts.
"It is a huge concern and judges have told me of their fears of further mistrials. Generally, the fear is that if a member of the jury googles the name of an accused person and discovers something, it will lead to juries being discharged at further cost, in money and emotional terms, as well as inconvenience and delay, to everyone.
"Nobody really knows the answer to the problem as it is something of a modern phenomenon. But it is something that will have to be addressed," said the lawyer, who did not wish to be identified for legal reasons.
Judges sitting on criminal cases do not give jury members specific instructions to avoid using internet search engines. But they remind jurors that they have taken an oath to assess the merits of the case solely on the basis of the evidence heard in court.
Some members of the judiciary think it would be wrong to instruct juries on internet use. Such a warning could backfire by leading any of the 12 members to believe there is something about the accused person to be found on the internet.
But others take the view that the problem could be overcome by judges specifically instructing juries not to read or listen to anything by any means of media about the trial, outside of what they hear in court.
Gardai are also concerned about the extra stress placed on complainants and witnesses, if a retrial is needed in serious cases.
The problem is not confined to Ireland as lawyers, judges and police in the UK also have similar concerns.
The head of the judiciary in England and Wales, Lord Igor Judge, recently said it was necessary to be realistic and address jury access to the internet.