On 16 July 2015, Charlotte Potts, 34, found herself in the Divisional Court in front of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, and Mr Justice Mitting in respect of a contempt of court. It was widely reported that Potts was sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment suspended for 1 year.
Potts was sitting on a jury hearing a trial in relation to allegations of a serious sexual offence. One evening during the jury’s deliberations, she typed the accused’s name into Google and found material prejudicial to the defendant. The following day – reportedly “plagued with guilt” – she informed her fellow jurors of what she had done and that as a result she had changed her opinion of whether or not the defendant was guilty.
The judge was made aware (we presume, by another juror) and the four day trial was abandoned.
There are newly created jury offences, inserted into the Juries Act 1974 by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, however it appears that Potts was dealt with by way of contempt of court – this is so for two reasons, firstly that her actions occurred before the enactment of the new offences (and the principle against retroactivity bars her from being charged with an offence that did not exist at the time of her actions) and secondly this was a case before the Divisional Court and the new offences would be dealt with by the Crown Court.
Contempt is not a criminal offence and is rather in a class of its own (for more information, see the Law Commission’s report on juror misconduct). So, if Potts was not dealt with for a criminal offence, how was she “sentenced”?
There is a power to impose custody for contempt of court, and this is called “committal to custody” or “committal to prison”. The maximum period is 2 years and there is also a power to impose a fine of up to £2,500. This is not a sentence of imprisonment as is usually understood by the term, and so a suspended sentence order is not available.
So, how can the sentence be suspended? Well there is a power in the Civil Procedure Rules (see rule 81.29) that allows the court to suspend the period in custody for such period or on such terms as specified.
So, it appears the “sentence” is lawful, but the news reports are a little misleading / uninformed.