You might think that having her inane, sub-teenage, Facebook exchanges made public (‘It’ll be over tomoz fingers crossed , im not as daft as am cabbage looking hahaha’; ‘awe fuck nos hw a didn’t get caught viv my nods and blinks’) would be punishment enough for any 40-year-old woman.

However, the judge in the trial of the ‘Facebook juror’, Joanna Fraill, sentenced her to eight months in prison for contempt, after she contacted a defendant in a drugs trial, via the social networking site.It’s hard to have much sympathy for Ms Fraill. She knew that she shouldn’t contact the defendant, Jamie Sewart, and that she was jeopardising the whole trial (‘pleeeeeese don’t say anything cause jamie they could call mmiss trial and I will get 4cked too’). Unsurprisingly, the judge wanted to make an example of her – not least to deter any other jurors who might be equally cavalier about their use of the internet.

No doubt, the case will be seized on by critics of the jury system as evidence that jurors can’t be trusted not to Google the names of defendants or witnesses (or, in the case of Ms Fraill, become their friend on Facebook and get into a discussion about ongoing deliberations).

The reality is rather more complex. There is nothing new about jurors’ bad behaviour scuppering trials; the internet just gives them new (and admittedly powerful) tools for doing so. In the infamous 1994 ‘ouija board’ trial, where jurors attempted to contact the murder victim to ask who had killed him, they used an upturned glass and a pack of cards (or whatever a ouija board entails), rather than a search engine, but the principle remains the same. (As an aside: one of the lawyers involved in the ouija board case commented to me about the jurors’ abject stupidity: given that the murder victim was known to be a habitual liar, why did they expect him to be any more truthful dead than alive?)

A friend proudly told me recently that when she did jury service years ago, she made a point of driving past the junction where the incident in question took place. She was horrified to be told that, what she thought was exceptional diligence was technically contempt of court. Another friend recounts that the judge in his case had specifically warned jurors that, during the course of the trial, they should not visit the nightclub where the alleged assault had taken place.

Clearly, some judges are better than others at issuing timely and clear warnings to jurors who may be tempted to do a little extra homework on their case.

What the debate about jurors and the internet invariably fails to recognise is that the quality of information they are provided with generally is lamentable. When I did jury service half a dozen years ago, on the first day we were all shown a court service video, presumably explaining what to expect. I say ‘presumably’, because the sound didn’t work and it was hard to tell from the pictures what the video was actually about.

Another friend, an experienced civil lawyer whose only experience of criminal justice was as a juror, was amazed to learn during our conversation that jurors are allowed to ask the judge questions about the case. She didn’t know and no one had told her during the trial.

If jurors are, indeed, routinely researching their cases on the internet, I suspect that this is more through lack of awareness, than malevolence. Lawyers and judges well understand the need for rules about admissibility of evidence and withholding prejudicial material – but for most ordinary people, the automatic assumption is that the more information they have, the better decision they will make.   In almost every other sphere of life now, before making any kind of decision – from which ironing board cover to buy, to whether to contact the person you met in a bar last night  – people use the internet as a matter of course.

Jurors who Google a defendant or look at his Facebook page will often be acting from exactly the same impulse – because internet research is what you do when you are being sensible and conscientious.   The courts have been slow to recognise that the huge cultural shift in the way people now access and use information was bound to affect what they do when they are jurors. Rather than just despairing at the potential of the internet to undermine trials, judges should make sure their jurors understand jury service is the one area where showing initiative and doing your own research is not to be applauded but, in fact, A Very Bad Thing (which could even land you in prison).

Ms Fraill was clearly stupid and reckless. She displayed absolute contempt for the trial, in the legal sense and in the way that most of us would understand the word. However, her contempt for the justice process is shared by much of the popular press.

Tabloid reporting of the criminal justice is invariably distorted, partial and almost wilfully inaccurate. The justice system is presented as a joke, where – through a combination of wily defence lawyers, judges who are too soft and out of touch, and political correctness gone mad –  the guilty walk free and the innocent are imprisoned.

As I write this blog, there just happen to be two headlines on the Daily Mail website which perfectly illustrate this point:

Mother who downed two litres of wine before driving her two children walks free from court

Shopkeeper who frogmarched teenage thief home to his father subjected to a TEN-MONTH court ordeal after police charge HIM with false imprisonment   

In case Daily Mail readers weren’t outraged enough by the shopkeeper story headline,the first paragraph of an early version of the Mail’s story made the completely bonkers claim that the ‘respected shopkeeper’ was ‘warned he could face life in jail’ for ‘frogmarching the boy back home’.

Where the tabloids are concerned, who cares that the only thing stolen was a bunch of grapes, or that the shopkeeper (however ‘respected’) didn’t actually see who took them (a detail edited out of later versions of the Daily Mail’s story)? Let’s gloss over the fact that he didn’t just ‘frogmarch’ a 15-year-old child, but chased him, caught him, put him in his car and then drove him home; forget the fact that the court’s punishment was not life in prison but a (rather more proportionate) £250 fine.

In the case of the drink-driving mother who was, in fact, banned from driving for two years and given a 12-month community service order, let’s give the impression she got off scot free with the (technically correct but misleading) headline that she ‘walked free from court’.

No one in their right mind would have any respect for the kind of court system portrayed in the tabloids – clearly, it deserves nothing but derision and, yes, contempt. Against this kind of backdrop, is it any wonder that the Ms Fraill didn’t take the judge’s warnings seriously and had no compunction about showing her own disdain for the court process?