Tuesday, December 20, 2011

twitter ye not

The Lord Chief Justice, Judge Judge, may have opened a Pandora’s Box with his guidance on the use of text based communications in court. Basically he says that a member of the public has to seek permission from the judge or magistrates whereas a representative of the media or a legal commentator can twitter away without needing any kind of approval.

It is unclear what is encompassed in the word media and who can rightly claim to be its representatives. What kind of legal commentary is being sanctioned. It is surprising that the senior judiciary is giving this power to such a legally ill-defined group of people. Could frequent tweeters or bloggers assume they fit into one of the privileged categories and so have the authority to publish directly and instantaneously from the courtroom.

The guidance naively states that “the most obvious purpose of permitting the use of live, text-based communications would be to enable the media to produce fair and accurate reports of the proceedings.” Ah bless ! The assumption that the objective of the whole of the media is to produce fair and accurate reports of anything at all is touching, but wrong. Perhaps the LCJ should ask his colleague Lord Leveson if his current enquiry has demonstrated to him such high honour amongst the press.

There is already a growing and worrying problem of jurors and witnesses accessing the internet to discover ‘information’ about defendants during a case. (There is nothing to stop judges and magistrates doing so, other than their integrity and professionalism.) The consent to texting of news and opinion from court sits uneasily with the existing prohibitions which are so necessary for the fairness of trials, and creates a dangerous dichotomy.

I am all in favour of embracing technology, and am doing so in writing this blog, but there is a time and place, and a court, particularly a criminal court, is not a place to be included unless the precise use of the technology throughout the hearing can be monitored by the judge.

The guidance concludes that “the use of an unobtrusive, hand held, silent piece of modern equipment for the purposes of simultaneous reporting of proceedings to the outside world as they unfold in court is generally unlikely to interfere with the proper administration of justice”. Generally maybe not, but the administration of justice is far from perfect now and there will be many occasions when justice will be compromised by inappropriate texts and tweets. There is no point in setting up those situations. This guidance does just that.



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