What is contempt of court? Warning issued to social media users to 'think before you post'

A new campaign is warning social media users of the risks around contempt of court, which can carry a two-year prison sentence.

The Attorney General has launched a campaign warning of the risk of posting information to social media which could prejudice criminal proceedings, urging the public to think before they post.

Michael Ellis QC said the new public awareness campaign will offer guidance on what information, if posted publicly online, could leave social media users at risk of being held in contempt of court.

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Social media users are at risk of being held in contempt of court (Photo: Shutterstock)
Social media users are at risk of being held in contempt of court (Photo: Shutterstock)

At-a-glance: 5 key points

- The #thinkbeforeyoupost campaign warns that aborted trials affect not only the defendant, but also the victims and witnesses, who will then have to go through an often traumatic experience all over again.

- The Attorney General has warned social media users about the risks of posting material on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other online platforms that could prejudice a trial.

- The campaign is using the hashtag #ThinkBeforeYouPost and will run on social media until July 2.

- If you are found to be in contempt of court, you could go to prison for up to two years, get a fine, or both.

- You could be in contempt of court if you speak publicly or post on social media. For example, by saying whether you think a person is guilty or innocent, or by referring to someone’s previous convictions.

What’s been said

“Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and everyone deserves a fair trial. The issue is really about discussing matters which should only be raised for the first time in front of the jury,” the Attorney General said.

“A misjudged tweet or post could have grave repercussions and interfere with a trial. A post on social media could mean a trial is delayed or at worst stopped because a fair trial isn’t possible, so I would caution everyone – don’t get in the way of justice being done.

“It is not only journalists or lawyers who can be found in contempt of court, ordinary members of the public can also do so and find themselves facing their own legal consequences.”

What is contempt of court?

‘Contempt of court’ is when a person risks unfairly influencing a court case. It may stop somebody from getting a fair trial and can affect a trial’s outcome.

Examples given on the government website include:

- disobeying or ignoring a court order

- taking photos or shouting out in court

- refusing to answer the court’s questions if you’re called as a witness

- publicly commenting on a court case, for example on social media or online news articles