ECtHR holds that UK’s finding of juror’s contempt of Court from internet research was not in breach of Article 7. Angus McCullough QC acted for the UK Government.

This case was highly publicised at the time. In 2012, Theodora Dallas, a university lecturer was sentenced to 3 months in prison for researching the defendant on the internet during a grievous bodily harm with intent trial in which she was acting as a juror.

Attorney General v Dallas [2012] EWHC 156 (Admin) (23 January 2012)

Ms Dallas complained to the ECtHR that there was a breach of Article 6 of the Convention on the basis of the alleged failure to particularise the offence until judgment was given, and a breach of Article 7 on the basis that she was found guilty of a criminal offence on account of an act which did not constitute a criminal offence at the time it was committed. Article 7 is a rarely invoked provision of the Convention, prohibiting criminal convictions on the basis of retrospective laws, as well as disproportionately severe penalties. Any finding of breach would have had major impact on the domestic law of contempt of court.

Angus McCullough QC acted for the UK Government in the Strasbourg proceedings.

The Court was satisfied that the complaint raised arguable issues under article 7 and so was admissible in that respect, but considered the remainder of the complaint inadmissible. It observed that the progressive development of criminal law through judicial law-making is a well-entrenched and necessary part of legal tradition in the UK. Article 7 does not outlaw the gradual clarification of the rules of criminal liability provided the resultant development is consistent with the essence of the offence and could reasonably be foreseen.

Applying the general principles to this case, the Court considered that it must be quite evident to any juror that deliberately introducing extraneous evidence into the jury room contrary to an order of the trial judge amounts to intending to commit an act that at the very least carries a real risk of being prejudicial to the administration of justice. In deciding that specific intent could be derived from the foreseeability of the consequences of certain actions, the Divisional Court was not replacing the specific intent test, but was rather finding the text to be met in the circumstances of the applicant’s case. There was clear precedent for the approach. The Divisional Court did not overstep the limits of what could be regarded as an acceptable clarification of the law.

The judgment will become final three months from judgment unless either party requests a referral of the case to the Grand Chamber.