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Tweeting the courts

10 January 2011. Published by Keith Mathieson, Partner

The Lord Chief Justice has issued guidance on the use of Twitter in court.

The Daily Mail reported this as "Carry on tweeting".  The Lord Chief Justice's civil servants preferred to use more formal Whitehall language, calling their guidance "Interim Practice Guidance: The Use of Live Text-Based Forms of Communication (including Twitter) from Court for the Purposes of Fair and Accurate Reporting".

The guidance covers the use in court of "live text-based communications", defined to include "mobile email, social media (including Twitter) and internet enabled laptops", but presumably also including text messaging on mobile phones.  It points out that the almost invariable rule is that mobile phones must be turned off in court, but an application can be made to the court for permission to activate and use a mobile phone, small laptop or similar piece of equipment in order to make live text-based communications of the proceedings.

The guidance confirms that there is no statutory prohibition on the use of live text-based communications in court.  This contrasts with the taking of photographs or the making of sound recording in court, which are subject to statutory prohibition or control.

When considering whether to grant permission to use live text-based communications in court, and if so by whom, the guidance says that the paramount question will be whether the use may interfere with the proper administration of justice.  The most obvious permissible purpose will be to enable the media to produce fair and accurate reports of the proceedings.  According to the guidance: "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".

If, however, there is a risk that witnesses or jury members in a criminal case may be influenced by tweeting or similar communications, there is a clear danger to the administration of justice and permission should not be granted.  The guidance also acknowledges the risk that allowing lots of people in court to tweet may interfere with the court's own sound recording equipment.  In such cases, the court should consider limiting the permission to representatives of the media for journalistic purposes.

The guidance followed a decision by the judge hearing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's bail application at the City of Westminster magistrates court to permit reporters to use Twitter and other electronic media to keep the public informed about what was happening in court.

The Ministry of Justice will shortly be conducting a consultation on the issue.

See further section 10.2.5 of the Privacy Law Handbook

(Originally blogged by Lindsay Hodgkinson)