Landmark ruling allows tweeting from court – for now

Michael Savage
Tuesday 21 December 2010 01:00

The Lord Chief Justice has given the public the right to report from inside courtrooms using Twitter, texts and email.

In a landmark ruling, Lord Judge concluded that anyone in court would be given permission to make "live text-based communications" of court proceedings on a case-by-case basis, at the discretion of the judge.

However, he also warned that there were dangers in allowing those in court to issue live reports, including the possibility of witnesses in criminal cases being influenced outside court. The new guidance is only temporary and will be reviewed.

It states that permission to tweet in court can be withdrawn if it disturbs proceedings or if smartphones interfere with the court's own recording equipment. Tweeting can also be limited to journalists should a judge wish to ban it from the public gallery.

"There is no statutory prohibition on the use of live text-based communications in open court. But before such use is permitted, the court must be satisfied that its use does not pose a danger of interference to the proper administration of justice in the individual case," the guidance states.

"Subject to this consideration, 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."

The guidance follows days of confusion over the use of Twitter in court. Last week, a judge overseeing the bail hearing of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gave journalists permission to tweet from court – but a judge at a subsequent appeal hearing refused to allow reporters to publish the 140-character updates.

The review of the use of live updates from court will involve consultations with the Government, the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and the Society of Editors.

Why has the new guidance been issued now?

The technology needed to publish live information using smartphones is only a recent innovation. The use of social media sites such as Twitter has also grown rapidly over the last year.

Many lawyers say some journalists have been tweeting discretely from court for some time, but it was at last week's bail hearing for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, that a district judge gave reporters explicit permission to tweet from the press box. That was thought to be a legal first.

Who will be allowed to tweet?

There are obvious problems with allowing anyone in court to tweet. Families of the defendant could use it to intimidate witnesses. Regular court-goers could attempt to prompt barristers to ask certain questions. Friends of the victim could try to put pressure on jurors. And mass debates could break out about an ongoing case, leading to the possibility of prejudicing the jury.

For that reason, judges will have the right to only allow journalists to tweet during some cases. Even then, a judge can decide to prevent them if they think it necessary to ensure that justice is served.

This also raises problems about defining who counts as a journalist. Do bloggers count? For now, it probably applies to those with an official press card sitting in a designated media area.

Won't journalists be at risk of breaking contempt laws?

That is certainly a danger. Anyone tweeting will have to be careful about what they say, as the same rules apply to Twitter as material published in a newspaper. Reporters will have to be accurate and cannot express opinions or make asides about an ongoing case – some may have to brush up on their understanding of media law.

How will it be policed?

There are obvious problems in policing tweeting. Recording equipment is still banned in the courtroom, but many new smartphones come pre-loaded with sound recording software. How can a judge be sure proceedings aren't being secretly taped? Lord Judge's decree is only an interim verdict. It will now be reviewed to ensure it works in practice.

Why not just allow cameras in?

The ruling will increase pressure to finally allow live television cameras into court. Following the new guidelines, the head of Sky News issued a statement saying: "If the same policy was applied to video cameras, justice would also be seen to be done by the public on TV, online and on mobiles."

Opponents have always argued that cameras would deter some witnesses from appearing, as well as encouraging the fame-hungry to show off.

But is there really any difference between allowing people to write updates on Twitter and simply setting up a live audio feed to allow anyone to listen in on a case?

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