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No "Sign" of Contempt – The right of jurists to vote by conscience is upheld

A retired social worker who held up a placard outside a climate trial that read “Jurors you have an absolute right to acquit a defendant according to your conscience” will not face legal action following the High Court ruling in HM Solicitor General v Trudi Ann Warner.

Background to the ruling

Ms Warner was arrested on 27 March 2023 after holding up her placard outside Inner London Crown Court, where climate change protesters were due to stand trial. The message on the sign referred to the historic Bushel's Case from 1670, which is recognised for establishing jury independence in England and Wales. Ms Warner’s placard summarised the principle of “jury equity”, the power of a jury to give a verdict according to conscience, and it mirrored wording found on a plaque in the Old Bailey commemorating Bushel’s Case. This principle, although well established and affirmed by the highest courts, creates an inherent tension with the obligation of a jury to follow a judge’s directions on the law. 

Robert Courts KC MP, the Solicitor General acting in his capacity as guardian of the public interest, applied to the High Court for permission to bring contempt of court proceedings against Ms Warner. It was alleged that Ms Warner had interfered with the administration of justice by trying to influence jurors. At the permission stage, the Solicitor General had to convince the Court there was a reasonable basis for bringing a contempt of court claim and it was in the public interest to do so. 

Judgment

The hearing took place on 18 April in the High Court before the Honourable Mr Justice Saini. The Government contended that Ms Warner had "deliberately targeted" jurors and that the placard presented an “instruction or encouragement” or constituted a “plain invitation” to jurors to discharge their duties in a particular way. Ms Warner’s Counsel submitted that her actions were not unlawful or improper and that there was no evidence to suggest any actual or risked serious interference with the administration of justice. 

Mr Justice Saini deemed the Government’s arguments to be a “mischaracterisation” of Ms Warner’s actions. Mr Justice Saini held that if a significant problem were to arise in respect of the accepted tension between jury equity and the duty of jurors to follow judicial directions, the proper forum to address this would be Parliament. In the meantime, Mr Justice Saini ruled that it was not unlawful to accurately communicate, as Ms Warner had done, a bare principle of law to potential jurors. 

Mr Justice Saini also considered whether permitting such a claim would be in the public interest. He acknowledged that contempt proceedings pursue the legitimate aim of maintaining the integrity of the trial process and the impartiality of juries, but could not find even an arguable basis that interference with Ms Warner’s right to free speech was necessary or proportionate to protect this. It was proposed that proper directions by a judge to a jury on the law, and juror rights would be sufficient to protect the integrity of a trial.  

The high bar for contempt of court

This ruling confirms the principle of jury equity as “an established feature of our constitutional landscape”. The Court held that the mere sharing of information about such principles cannot be unlawful. In any case the Court will be careful to pursue the protection of judicial independence and juror impartiality through the most proportionate means. The bar to bring contempt of court proceedings against those who seek to rely on jury equity remains high.

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