Permission to tweet in court to be decided on case by case basis

20 December 2010 by

The Lord Chief Justice has issued interim guidance on the use of live text-based forms of communication, including Twitter, from court for the purpose of fair and accurate reporting.

For the time being, it will be possible to apply to a judge for permission to turn on one’s mobile phone or computer in order to tweet. Judges must consider whether the application “may interfere with the proper administration of justice“. The most obvious purpose for permitting the use of live, text-based communications “would be to enable the media to produce fair and accurate reports of the proceedings.”

The guidance follows the international focus (on Twitter at least) in relation to the Julian Assange bail hearings. At the first hearing at Westminster magistrates court, two tweeters were given permission to tweet (see my post). At the second, in the high court, Mr Justice Ouseley refused permission for anyone to tweet.

THe Lord Chief Justice has now clarified the position, and will shortly open a consultation on the issue. The guidance is perfectly sensible, and reflects the position which has existed to now based on the traditional principles; namely, that the audience to a court hearing can do what they like so long as it is not making an audio recording (s.9 Contempt of Court Act 1981) or taking a photograph (s.41 Criminal Justice Act 1924), it doesn’t disturb proceedings and it does not interfere with the administration of justice.

The important part of the guidance is reproduced below:

12. The normal, indeed almost invariable, rule has been that mobile phones must be turned off in court. An application, whether formally or informally made (for instance by communicating a request to the judge through court staff) can be made by an individual in court to activate and use a mobile phone, small laptop or similar piece of equipment, solely in order to make live text-based communications of the proceedings.

13. When considering, either on its own motion, or following a formal application or informal request, whether to permit live text-based communications, and if so by whom, the paramount question will be whether the application may interfere with the proper administration of Justice. 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.

14. Without being exhaustive, the danger to the administration of justice is likely to be at its most acute in the context of criminal trials e.g., where witnesses who are out of court may be informed of what has already happened in court and so coached or briefed before they then give evidence, or where information posted on, for instance, Twitter about inadmissible evidence may influence members of a jury. However, the danger is not confined to criminal proceedings; in civil and sometimes family proceedings, simultaneous reporting from the courtroom may create pressure on witnesses, distracting or worrying them.

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