LONDON // The jailing of a British juror for using Facebook to communicate with a defendant during a drugs trial has highlighted the growing problems that the internet is posing courts around the world.
Joanne Fraill, 40, made legal history on Thursday when she was jailed for eight months for contempt of court committed during the drugs gang trial last year, which collapsed at a more than £6 million (Dh35.7m) cost because her internet forays.
The juror's jailing came just two weeks after Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs was exposed globally on Twitter for having an extramarital affair despite the fact that he had obtained a High Court "super injunction" which, supposedly, made it a crime for anyone to name him.
Twitter's role in the Giggs case made "an ass of the law" commented Jeremy Hunt, Britain's media minister, while Lord (David) Neuberger, the head of civil justice in England and Wales, lamented that "modern technology is totally out of control" in the court system.
Although the problem is being felt most keenly at present in Britain and the US, legal experts warned yesterday that courts withjury systems throughout the world would inevitably encounter similar difficulties.
In the US, a Florida Bar committee recently noted: "Many individuals called for jury service, especially younger jurors, have grown up with the internet.
"These potential jurors may consider constant communication through cell phones, BlackBerrys and other devices to be a normal part of everyday life."
Steven C Bennett, a partner in the New York City offices of law firm Jones Day and a lecturer in electronic discovery at Rutgers and New York Law School, said the problems start when jurors begin searching the internet for information about a case, or start blogging or tweeting during the course of a trial.
"In response to the increasing problem of juror connections to the internet, several states - including California, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, and New York - have drafted or adopted new rules directing trial court judges to specifically warn jurors about the impropriety of external research and communications that may affect the fairness of a trial," said Mr Bennett.
"Some courts have considered banning use of all electronic devices by jurors during the course of a trial. The problem, however, will not easily go away."
In Thursday's case in England, Fraill was jailed after she admitted that, during the trial in Manchester last year, she began exchanging Facebook messages with Jamie Sewart, 34, about the case.
Fraill had been on the jury at the trial while Sewart had originally been a defendant. During the course of the trial, however, the case against Sewart was dropped for lack of evidence.
After jailing Fraill, Lord (Igor) Judge, the lord chief justice, warned that jurors using the internet to do their own research during a trial seriously undermined the country's "precious" jury system.
"We are aware that reference to the internet is inculcated as a matter of habit into many members of the community and no doubt that habit will grow," he said.
"We must, however, be entirely unequivocal ... that if jurors make their own inquiries into aspects of the trials with which they are concerned, the jury system as we know it, so precious to the administration of criminal justice in this country, will be seriously undermined.
"What is more, the public confidence on which it depends will be shaken. The jury's deliberations, and ultimately their verdict, must be based - and exclusively based - on the evidence given in court."
Yet the legal world is increasingly turning to the internet for evidence of wrongdoing. USA Today reported recently that the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that "81 per cent of its members have used or faced evidence from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites, including YouTube and LinkedIn, over the last five years".
Courts in Boston have gone a step further and are integrating Facebook into the US legal system by using the site to stream live court hearings.
"Facebook will continue to play an increased roll as the courts continue to integrate, foster and utilise the site in an interest at improving and evolving the judicial system in courts worldwide," according to Devin Brown from the CBS News show, What's Trending.
Problems arise, as the English drugs trial has shown, when jurors begin to "foster and utilise" the internet during the course of a trial.
Some countries attempt to overcome the problem by isolating jury members in hotels for the duration of hearings but Max Hill, a leading criminal barrister and vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association of England and Wales, doubts this will provide a long-term solution.
"It's very, very expensive and very, very difficult in practice," he said. "There was a famous case about 20 years ago when a jury sequestered in a hotel used a Ouija board to contact a murder victim and ask him who killed him.
"Now we have Twitter, Facebook, iPhones, iPads - it's very difficult, if not impossible, to take all these devices away from people.
"A better course and, in fact, a cheaper course, is to give the jury strict instructions and then trust them. And that's what we want to do."