November 25, 2011 2.04 pm This story is over 150 months old

Lincoln Lawyer: Trial by jury or by Google?

Lincoln Lawyer: In the internet era, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain impartial juries.

Tony Freitas is the Head of the Criminal Law Department at McKinnells solicitors in Lincoln. He discusses how the Stephen Lawrence trial, in the news this week, raises questions about justice.

You can find absolutely anything on the Internet. A quick search around on Google and you can come across everything from chocolate covered grasshoppers to information about Government debt. It’s the number one research tool for the modern world. No more pulling the wool over our eyes, we can find things out for ourselves!

However, one thing that we have to be mindful of is that no one has to approve Internet content before it is made public. It is very easy to write an article where no one is allowed to challenge what is written, so the information we find will be wide-ranging in its accuracy, reliability, and value. It’s our job as readers to evaluate what we find in order to decide if it sounds right or if it suits our needs.

Having such a wide variety of material is not always a positive thing when it comes to finding out hard facts, especially when it comes to matters of justice.

Let’s look at the Stephen Lawrence trial. A high-profile murder that has been in and out of the press for years meaning that people across the country, who would never have met Mr Lawrence or anyone involved in the case, already have strong opinions about the subject based on what they have read and heard.

An opinion, once formed, is hard to change and a major error that many people make is to look for sources whose findings, or arguments agree with their own. It’s fine to have opinions, but we should all be open to opposing ideas and not discount them because they conflict with our own. For a juror, this open-minded view is absolutely critical.

The jurors in the Stephen Lawrence case have been told not to read certain magazines or conduct research over the Internet. There is a very good reason for this. Unlike the Internet, evidence they will hear will have been tested for accuracy and the jurors’ oath requires that they decide the case only on the evidence presented to them in court.

This is the basis for our legal system and must not be undermined. Being on a jury carries great responsibility and we have to abide by the system so as not to fundamentally undermine the legal process. Earlier this year, a woman juror was sent to prison after she used Facebook to contact the defendant during a trial.

We have all heard that ‘knowledge is power’, but the truth is that only some knowledge is power. If we make a judgment based on poor information then this is not power, this is damage. If we eat something poisonous that we believe is safe, we can become ill.

Here in Lincoln, our jury trials take place within the grounds of Lincoln Castle, only a few yards from the Magna Carta. This historic manuscript created the fundamental right to fair trial by jury nearly 800 years ago. Every year, thousands of people, from all over the world, come to look at this important document that gave people certain liberties, and demanded that no one should be punished except through the proper legal process.

This right, which is still in existence today, is something that we should hold on to strongly in an era where trial-by-media is having such an impact on the guilt or innocence of people before, or after, a verdict in a court of law.

Tony is the Head of the Criminal Law Department, after initially joining McKinnells in May 2005. He rather foolishly left the firm in mid 2010, before returning in September 2011 in his current role.