Judge warns of increasing internet risk to fair trials

An Old Bailey judge has protested over increasing difficulties in ensuring that criminals trials are conducted without the risk of jurors being prejudiced by material from the internet after having to discharge a jury in a child cruelty trial.

Judge David Paget QC made his comment as he discharged the jury at the trial of German-born celebrity children’s nanny Jasmin Schmidt in January. His remarks could not be reported until now because of reporting restrictions.

The judge acted after it emerged that one juror had trawled the internet in search of information about the defendant and a prosecution witness, and had found a report referring to another and more serious charge against Schmidt.

The juror told another member of the jury that that charge had been dropped through lack of evidence.

But this was incorrect – in fact the trials had been severed, with Schmidt facing two charges of child cruelty at the first trial, in January this year.

She was due to be tried on a third, similar, charge later this year. The jury had not been told about the third charge, nor of the scheduled second trial.

The juror to whom the internet researcher made his comments reported the matter to the judge, who, at the start of the trial, had told members of the jury to consider only the evidence put before them and had specifically warned them not to look things up on the internet.

The judge discharged the jury and told Schmidt that the trial would have to be re-started with a new jury.

It was, he said, becoming “harder and harder” to try cases without prejudice because of the internet.

The judge said that at the start of the trial he gave a standard warning that jurors should not use the internet or make their own inquiries and went on: “The juror who found this report went looking for it in defiance of what I said.”

The juror who told the court about what had happened had “behaved extremely responsibly and had plainly taken my warning to heart”, the judge said.

He added: “It is very unfortunate for all those concerned and for the tax-payer. The chief consideration is that this defendant receives a fair trial.”

The judge said he would be sending the file on the abandoned trial to the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland QC, who decides if media organisations or others should be prosecuted for contempt.

The Crown Prosecution Service issued a note about the case to the media when the judge discharged the first jury, warning that material available on Internet websites might be prejudicial to the new trial, which started on January 16. That trial ended with Schmidt’s acquittal.

The judge had also warned that material in Internet archives could create a risk of prejudice.

Schmidt was convicted in August when tried on the third charge, and is now awaiting sentence.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office said: “The Attorney General is considering the issues raised by this case.”

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