Social media arrives in the courtroom

NICHOLAS MCDONALD

Lady Justice outside the Supreme Court of Queensland. Photo: Nicholas McDonald

The South Australian Supreme Court has allowed journalists and lawyers to use Twitter in court as the justice system begins to embrace the 21st Century.

The announcement marks the first time a social media network can be used in the courtroom but the new court rule falls short of allowing the public open access.

A statement from the court says “[Mobile] devices may be used in various ways – for example, to text to and from the courtroom, to take down notes and to research online.”

Rule 9B permits journalists and lawyers to communicate electronically, while rule 9A will prohibit any recording of court events unless ‘bona fide’ journalists meet certain conditions.

The court has placed a 15-minute suspension on any communications that “comment on witnesses giving evidence, submissions made during legal argument, or trial opening and closing addresses.”

This suspension is designed to limit the exposure of journalists and lawyers to libel charges should the court suppress the evidence.

Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University, has praised the courts willingness to stay up-to-date with new technology.

“The courts need to keep pace with new technologies as the public embraces them,” he said.

“It helps with the principle of ‘open justice’, proceedings become even more open if journalists are able to post updates.”

Mr Pearson also warned of the dangers of such immediate communication.

“There are some risks attached, particularly if the court decides to suppress evidence after hearing it in court,” he said.

“That is where the 15-minute pause requirement comes in.”

Mobile phones are everywhere and connected to everything but should that include the courts? Photo by Nicholas McDonald

Mobile phones are everywhere and connected to everything but should that include the courts? Photo: Nicholas McDonald

The 15-minute suspension clause may present a hazard to journalists who may face defamation charges if suppressed material is released or if they post before the time limit.

Mr Pearson said he believed the objectivity of the reporter would be examined if they were defending themselves from defamation.

“Defamation defences in this regard depend on a report being ‘fair and accurate’,” he said.

“One would imagine the fairness aspect would come into question if [the tweet] breaks the court’s rule on tweeting.”

The court said it will only permit ‘bona fide’ journalists to use social media under this new rule however the line becomes blurred as citizen journalism increases in popularity.

Citizen journalists, such as bloggers or private freelance journalists, will have to demonstrate to the court that they are competent reporters worthy of inclusion.

Rocco Russo, partner from Cooper Grace Ward lawyers, said in a recent statement it is not surprising the courts were starting to engage with social media as they might be beneficial to the court process.

“While courts so far have been cautious,” the statement said.

“It is clear that social media presence and activity could, in some circumstances, be used to support service of important court documents via social media.”

Mr Russo drew attention to the New South Wales Court of Appeal’s use of Facebook to serve court documents to rapper Tramar Dillard, better known as Flo Rida.

Mr Dillard claims the documents never reached him and successfully appealed the charge to pay damages in the NSW Court of Appeal.

It was decided that the District Court’s effort to serve papers to Mr Dillard was insufficient and this event has provided “food for thought” when discussing the role of social media in the justice system.

The statement from Cooper Grace Ward believes that although it was difficult for the District Court to provide evidence against Mr Dillard’s claim, it may not be difficult to collect evidence in the future.

This has distinct ramifications for any journalists or lawyers who find themselves facing defamation charges as it is very tough to remove any damaging statements from the Internet.

More education is needed to better train journalists and lawyers in the acceptable use of social media, says Professor Pearson. Photo by Nicholas McDonald

More education is needed to better train journalists and lawyers in the acceptable use of social media, says Professor Pearson. Photo: Nicholas McDonald

Changes to the courtroom are occurring rapidly as social media expands and Mark Pearson said he believed better training might protect professionals in the future.

“Our research proposes better training for jurors so they do not misuse social media in the courtroom,” he said.

The Victorian Department of Justice is one institution that has taken it upon themselves to train its citizens in responsible social media usage by establishing a social media policy.

The policy outlines what is and is not acceptable social media usage in their courts and is one step in engaging with the increased use of mobile phones connected to the internet within the courtroom.

As for the future of social media in the courts: “Simple answer is that it’s here to stay and the courts are taking measures like this to adapt to it.”

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