UK Attorney General suggests site owner liability for member comments

15 Oct 2010

The Attorney General for England and Wales has said website operators should be responsible for comments made by visitors on their sites that prejudice trials.

Dominic Grieve said to the Criminal Bar Association that protecting the fairness of trials was becoming more difficult due to the changing face of news media.

“The rise of (the internet) has been profound in so many aspects of our lives, including the relationship between the courts and the media,” said Grieve.

“The news is constantly available and updated either on 24-hour television networks, the websites of mainstream news organisations, or unofficial blogs, emails and social networking sites. The amount of material is vast and it can be passed on at lightning speed.

“In my view, this does not reduce the importance of the contempt of court laws. It doesn’t remove the need for fair and accurate contemporaneous reports,”he said.

Grieve said he wants “further discussions” in regards to website owners’ liability.

He also noted that the growing number of places where people can create and read news would make problems for courts attempting to ensure trials are fair and that juries could not access material that could prejudice the hearing.

“If it is increasingly easy for individuals to act as unofficial journalists and publishers, the greater the need for general understanding about why restrictions are sometimes necessary,” said Grieve.

“This extends particularly to those who run websites upon which members of the public place their opinions.”

Grieve said he understood there was “no clear authority” in regards to the owners’ legal obligation, be he believes there must be an argument where “they, too, have to ensure that a trial is not prejudiced by what is posted.”