Tweeting from the courts

Wed, May 7, 2014, 01:00

As Chief Justice Justice Susan Denham pointed out last week, the presence of the media in our courts is vital to the rule of law and democracy – justice must be administered in public. But she is concerned that changes in the media landscape and reduced resources mean coverage of regional and local courts is dwindling, while the desire for immediacy leads to information increasingly being disseminated via social media.

Well-accepted conventions over reporting court proceedings by print and broadcast media have been challenged by the arrival of tools such as Twitter, which allow anyone to publish anything from any location instantaneously. Increasingly, the first news of a major decision comes via a live tweet from the court.

The difficulty posed for the courts in protecting due process, is clear. As the Chief Justice puts it, social media are “as decentralised as air, and as multidirectional as wind – ever present and at times all over the place”. Once posted, something cannot be fully withdrawn, whether correct or incorrect.

Equally, she is concerned at the possibility that live coverage by way of instant messaging service, could cause difficulties if evidence already tweeted is subsequently ruled inadmissible and not to be reported.These concerns are best addressed by limiting live electronic coverage to accredited professionals familiar with legal process and attuned to the nuances and potential pitfalls involved in court reporting, as in the UK courts.

In an era when a few taps on the touchscreen of a mobile phone can yield vast amounts of information, accurate or not, about an individual’s past, it is clear that judges will have to give stricter directions to jurors on the use of search engines during trials. In the past some Irish courts have ordered the temporary deletion of court reports from online archives for fear of prejudicial impact on a trial. Trying to shut down parts of the internet seems a Canute-like response to a problem better addressed through guidelines for jurors.

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