Lawyers' googling of jurors to come under scrutiny

By Edward Gay

It could be unethical if lawyers played on jurors' prejudices. Photo / File
It could be unethical if lawyers played on jurors' prejudices. Photo / File

The Law Commission will investigate the issues raised by lawyers researching jurors on the internet, then tailoring their arguments to help them win cases.

The phenomenon, labelled unethical by a British judge, will be considered as part of a wider review this year.

The practice has come to light in at least one New Zealand case, but the legal fraternity said there was little chance of it prejudicing a trial here.

It is understood that in that case lawyers asked for a trial to be aborted after uncovering a relationship between a juror and a witness through internet searches. The judge rejected the application.

While the Bar Association of lawyers in Britain is drawing up guidelines on lawyers researching jurors, the president of its New Zealand counterpart said he couldn't see anything wrong with the practice. "Google is a legitimate source for information. The police go there, so why not lawyers?" Criminal Bar Association president Tony Bouchier said.

Auckland Crown solicitor Simon Moore, QC, said he would be surprised if the practice was not happening here.

He said lawyers take into account what they know about a judge's likes and dislikes when they make submissions and he could understand if lawyers gave the same consideration to jurors.

"You're not perverting the process, all you're doing is modifying submissions based on what you know which is what lawyers do every day."

That sentiment was echoed by the chairman of the Law Society's ethics committee, Duncan Webb, who said a lawyer's job was to persuade.

"If you find out that the jury is [made up] of rednecks, or liberals, or teachers, or parents then it all goes into knowing how to persuade them."

But Mr Webb acknowledged there was a grey area, and said it could be unethical if lawyers played on jurors' prejudices.

University of Auckland law lecturer Professor Warren Brookbanks said he was not aware of lawyers using Google to research jurors and was not sure if the practice raised ethical issues.

"It's a question of how the information is going to be used."

Law Commission president Sir Grant Hammond said the issue will be looked at during a review of contempt laws this year.

Required information

What lawyers know about jurors before trials begin:
*Name
*Date of birth
*Occupation
*Address

- APNZ

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