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Monday, 20 December 2010

Court tweets

A post for Halsbury's Law Exchange, published here

Open justice is one of the most fundamental tenets of English law. Lord Hewart CJ famously declared in R v Sussex Justices, ex parte McCarthy [1923] All ER Rep 233 that:

"... it is not merely of some importance, but of fundamental importance, that justice should both be done and be manifestly seen to be done."
Inevitably modern technology has given rise to new issues regarding the scope and application of the principle. Courts have yet to allow television broadcasting, photographing or electronic recording of proceedings; now they must deal with mobile communication devices and the internet, and in particular social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

One suspects that the genie is out of the bottle, and it will therefore be a case of managing the developing technology rather than pretending it does not exist or seeking to exclude it in toto. To that end, the Lord Chief Justice has this morning issued interim guidelines on the use of electronic communications from court. They provide, among other things, that: 
  • subject to the necessary precondition that its use does not pose a danger of interference to the proper administration of justice in the individual case, the use of an “unobtrusive, hand held, virtually 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”.
  • an application (formally or otherwise) can now be made by an individual in court to activate an electronic device (phone, laptop or similar). The judge will consider the above precondition and then other factors such as the danger of inadmissible evidence being reported, or pressure on witnesses.
 As mentioned these are interim guidelines, and many more considerations will no doubt come into play in practice. These will include the possibility of anonymous and untraceable publication and indeed publication beyond the reach of national law.

That said, the underlying issues are essentially the same as for pre-internet publishing. In the context of criminal trials, certain things may not be disclosed, such as the identity of a sex abuse complainant, or evidence subject to national security concerns. Jurors must disregard anything they may have heard of the case outside the courtroom, and certainly cannot reveal any of their discussions from the jury room. Nor can the use of technology disturb the conduct of proceedings in court or the court’s own electronic recording facilities.

Restrictions on using electronic devices will therefore have to be imposed on occasion. To that end, the new guidelines seem sensible, and two existing safeguards should suffice to maintain the administration of justice whilst permitting blogging or tweeting from court in most cases.

The first is the wide ranging remedy of contempt of court - equally broad in the scope of its application and in the severity of the potential sanction. The risk of anonymous internet publication remains, but at least the mainstream internet media could be controlled in that fashion.

The second is (in criminal cases) the judge's directions to the jury. There is nothing new about the jury hearing tendentious material about cases - from newspapers, radio or television or even what used to be called the grapevine. Social networking and scurrilous gossip were not, of course, invented with the internet, although the internet has undeniably increased information publication and dissemination to a vast extent. The judge should therefore reiterate with specific reference to the internet the need for the jury to disregard anything said or written about the case outside the proceedings themselves.

The key point remains, however, the principle of open justice. Recently the Guardian reported the declining number of traditional court reporters (not to be confused with law reporters). For all of the potential problems with modern communications, they should generally be welcomed as a means to uphold that cardinal principle. If used responsibly, they should increase public awareness and debate of the legal system, which can only be beneficial.

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