Tweeters and Facebook users to be advised on contempt of court risks

social media appsOne of the more unglamorous, but vital, sections of the government are the Law Officers. The Attorney General and Solicitor General are politicians and members of the Cabinet who act as the government’s lawyers. They act for the government in court and provide legal advice.

Not surprisingly, such an institution is having quite a time of it trying to interpret the law in the digital and social media age. Issues like contempt of court come up regularly, as we saw this week with Peaches Geldof.Today Attorney General and Conservative MP Dominic Grieve has announced that contempt of court advisories will be published online for the first time, to try and help people understand what may or may not be contempt of court, and how to avoid getting on the wrong side of the law on social media. In a press release posted online, the Attorney General’s Office announced:

Advisory notes from the Attorney General will be published on the gov.uk website and twitter from today to help prevent social media users from committing a contempt of court, Dominic Grieve QC MP has announced.

Previously these advisories were only issued to the media on a not-for-publication basis, but this clearly needed to change given that everyone can now publish and comment in public.

As well as Grieve doing the tv interview rounds, the Attorney General’s office used Twitter to get their message out, showing at least they know they need to communicate directly where the issue is arising.

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The tweets provide a rather fascinating incite into the current media environment. A later tweet from the AGO points out that when contempt of laws were passed in 1981 there were only three TV channels and a huge daily newspaper readership. It was easy to control and monitor the flow of information, and the limited number of broadcasters and publishers knew what the rules were. Not surprisingly, as more and more people get the ability to become publishers and broadcasters, the risk of people knowingly or unknowingly breaking the law also grows exponentially.

The case of Peaches Geldof last week was hardly the only high-profile legal issue on social media in recent times.  Ryan Giggs’ super-injunction was rendered worthless when thousands of people tweeted his name, and the former Conservative Chairman Lord McAlpine sued tweeters who had wrongly named him in relation to a Newsnight story about child abuse. The Speaker’s wife Sally Bercow and actor Alan Davies both ended up paying serious libel damages as a result of the case.

The legal system is one of the institutions that seems to be finding it particularly difficult to keep up the new digital landscape on which we operate, but by changing the way advice is issued, the Attorney General and his office are leading from the front in bringing justice into line with the age of mass publishing. Unless we want our Facebook, Twitter and blog posts to lead to a hefty fine, we’d all be wise to keep an eye out for those advisory tweets.