Quick, probably not very well-thought out post about law and teh interweb

Putting to one side the majority of the unpleasantness surrounding the Baby P case, one of the interesting aspects – from a media point of view – has been the problem of the online world and any court orders relating to reporting.

Without having delved too far into the story, it’s obvious that there’s some form of court order in play here, otherwise we’d have had Baby P’s name by now, along with the names of two of the accused [1].

The crime led to an outpouring of rage on assorted sources on the internet – blogs, forums, and Facebook groups, among other places.

Because of the way the internet is – huge swathes of information all quite easy to retrieve – it’s not exactly hard to find out the names of those involved, hence the naming and shaming that followed in the aftermath of the court case.

It doesn’t take a genius the piece together the information in the press reports, crossed referenced with a bit of smart Googling. Some of the older articles with names are in assorted caches.

Much of the ire seems to be focused on the fact that that the media hasn’t named the couple who were jailed over Baby P’s death, but as Judith Townsend at Journalism.co.uk points out, naming Baby P isn’t about any notion of justice (whatever that may be), or about the Facebook campaign. It’s about confronting the reality of an online world.

Everybody who joined the Facebook group or named them online is in contempt of court. But they’re not to know the ins and outs of contempt law. Why should they? Even journalists can be a bit fuzzy on some of the laws, unless they regularly work on court reporting or in a specific field.

Most laws relating to contempt were created to ensure a fair trial; to ensure that no matter how horrific the crime, no matter how apparent the guilt, the defendant gets a fair, unprejudiced trial.

Much of the law (I’d imagine) around the Baby P case are to protect other children involved in the case, not the accused or the guilty. The law is surprisingly clear on this.

That was fine when print and broadcast were the only ways of getting your news. The judge made the order, the journalists would sometimes contest it, but if they failed then the information didn’t get printed or broadcast. Simple.

Today, it’s never been easier to join the jots, the access cache, and to publish the names (or other relevant information online). And the orders don’t apply to non-UK websites.

As the law stands, there’s been a lot of Contempt of Court committed around the Baby P case. But who should be served with any action? Facebook? Blogger? WordPress? Google? Forum administrators? Individual bloggers? Individual posters? All of the above? None of the above?

Libel and the internet may not be perfect, but in this regard the law is streets ahead of Contempt of Court and the internet. The Baby P case has demonstrated that it’s virtually impossible to enforce Contempt laws in an online world (although I wouldn’t go as far as saying its impossible to get a fair trial).

Clearly, the laws surrounding Contempt and a fair trial need an urgent and serious overhaul. Quite what that should involve will take a far better legal brain than I, and probably about 99% of the country, have.

[1] It’s (thankfully) been a VERY long time since I’ve had to deal with child cases and courts, my immediate guess was a Section 39, although as that doesn’t apply to dead children, it might be a different court order. Section 11? I’ll have to pick up my copy of McNae’s again here as I think I need to reacquaint myself with the assorted orders to do with children and young people.

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3 Responses to “Quick, probably not very well-thought out post about law and teh interweb”


  1. 1 Hannah Costigan November 26, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    I heard somewhere that the mother has another child subject to care proceedings and that’s why Baby P hasn’t been named officially and she hasn’t either. And I can’t remember the legislation either.

  2. 2 Sam Shepherd November 27, 2008 at 11:51 am

    It’ll be either a Section 4 or a section 11 – you’re right s39 can’t apply to dead children or be used to protect identity of adults.

    I’d heard there was another court case pending and the restrictions are to protect either that case or the ids of Baby P’s siblings who are involved in that case.

    But I agree completely – the law needs revising but it’s impossible to envisage how you can enforce contempt.

    Maybe we’ll need to rely on the fact that people are much less likely to believe what they need these days, so information banned because it might be prejudicial is less likely to be prejudicial
    (I hope that makes sense!)

  3. 3 Gary Andrews November 27, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    Thanks for those quick bits – that makes perfect sense if there’s another court case pending or Baby P’s siblings are involved in some way. It’s nice to know all the Contempt law hasn’t left my brain for good.

    I wouldn’t like to be the person charged with revising Contempt legislation, that’s for sure!


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