Journalists and legal commentators can live tweet court proceedings without getting special permission from a judge, declared the UK's Lord Chief Justice yesterday.
"Twitter as much as you wish," said the judge as he handed down the guidance, which comes into effect immediately and determines the use of laptops and handheld devices in court.
In the past, journalists had to get special permission from the judge in order to be allowed to tweet, text or email live from the courtroom. These rules were based on guidelines issued December 2010.
But although the new guidance lifts restrictions, there are still caveats. Journalists' rights to use Twitter, text and email inside the courtroom can be withdrawn by the judge at any time if they seem to be compromising the administration of justice. Journalists are still bound by rules on legal reporting that were established in the 1981 Contempt of Court Act. The ruling only applies to legal proceedings that are open to the public. Photography and tape recording is still not allowed in court.
Within these boundaries, the Justice was positive about tweeting in court: '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.'
Under the new guidance, members of the public will also be allowed for the first time to use live text-based communication from the courtroom, although they will have to ask the judge's permission first.
According to the Justice, the guidance is based on "prolonged consultation including with the media, the secretary of state for justice, the attorney general and members of the public". He noted that, in the past, the "normal, indeed almost invariable rule" was that mobile phones had to be turned off in the courtroom. "There is however no statutory prohibition on the use of live text-based communications in open court," he stated.
In all court proceedings, the presiding judge will be responsible for making sure that text-based communications don't compromise the administration of justice. According to the Lord Chief Justice, danger is most likely to arise in situations when witnesses might be told what is happening in court before they give evidence, or when inadmissible evidence might be broadcast via Twitter and influence the jury. It could also arise in civil cases, if information coming from the courtroom is pressuring or worrying witnesses
There could also be situations in which journalists but not members of the public, will be allowed to tweet. The judge gave two examples: if too many electronic devices are being used at the same time so that they disrupt the court's sound recording equipment or if the number of phones being used is distracting people from the proceedings.
It could be a concern that these rules might draw a worrying distinction between professional and citizen journalists. But Joshua Rozenberg, writing for The Guardian, says he does not think they will do so. He notes that the term "a representative of the media or a legal commentator" is not defined by the guidance and could be very broad. And he writes that, in practice, "if you have enough legal or journalistic training to report court proceedings consistently with the laws of contempt, you come within the guidance. If you don't, you need to ask permission. If there's any doubt, the judge will have to decide. And if you really don't know what you're doing... then you probably shouldn't be tweeting anyway."