New Court Guidelines on Social Media: To Tweet or Not to Tweet

6 February 2012

With the increasing demand for live reporting of high-profile cases, and the proliferation in the use of Twitter, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, has issued new Court guidelines clarifying the use of live text-based communications such as mobile email, social media (including Twitter) and internet enabled laptops in and from Courts in England and Wales:

Lord Judge first permitted the use of Twitter in Court in December 2010 after reporters were granted permission to tweet during the extradition proceedings involving Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, but reporters have until now been required to seek permission from the Court to do so on a case by case basis.

Under the new guidelines, members of the media and legal commentators are no longer required to make an application to use text-based devices to communicate from Court in proceedings that are open to the public and not subject to reporting restrictions. Members of the public who wish to use mobile devices in Court for the purposes of text-based communications are still required to make a formal or informal application to the Court.

In relaxing the rules for the media, the Lord Chief Justice recognised that “A fundamental aspect of the proper administration of justice is the principle of open justice. Fair and accurate reporting of court proceedings forms part of that principle”. In doing so, he presumed that representatives of the media and legal commentators using live text-based communications from Court would not ordinarily pose a danger of interference to the proper administration of justice.

Anyone using text-based communications in and from Court is still subject to the existing restrictions of reporting court proceedings under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, and care needs to be exercised to ensure that any reporting does not in fact interfere with the proper administration of justice. The most obvious examples of this, which were referred to by the Lord Chief Justice in the Practice Guidance, are where witnesses who are out of Court in criminal trials could be informed of what has taken place in Court or where information posted on Twitter or other social media about inadmissible evidence could influence members of the jury. Simultaneous reporting from Court may also create pressure on witnesses in civil and family proceedings.

It remains open for the presiding Judge to withdraw or to limit permission to use live text-based communications from Court. For example, in the recent tax evasion proceedings involving Tottenham football manager Harry Redknapp, His Honour Judge Leonard QC banned the use of Twitter from inside the Court following a breach of reporting restrictions.

Members of the public should keep in mind the following points if intending to use mobile devices in Court:

  1. The taking of photographs in Court remains strictly prohibited under the Criminal Justice Act 1925.
  2. The use of sound recording equipment in Court unless with the leave of the Court is also prohibited under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
  3. Mobile phones must be turned off or put on silent in Court. Where a member of the public wishes to use live text-based communications regarding the proceedings then a formal or informal application (such as making the request through Court staff) should be made.
  4. The Judge may withdraw or limit permission to use live, text-based communications at any time, even if members of the press are allowed to do so.
  5. If you do intend to use text-based communications in Court: think carefully before you do so. You should consider whether in doing so you could interfere with the proper administration of justice and whether your comments are true and accurate. If you are in any doubt, hold off on publication until you have sought legal advice.


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