Journalists will no longer have to make an application for permission to Twitter, text or e-mail from court, the Lord Chief Justice announced today.
Handing down new guidance on using laptops and hand-held devices to communicate directly from courts in England and Wales, Lord Judge told reporters present: “Twitter as much as you like from today.”
But he warned that permission to use live, text-based communications from court may be withdrawn “at any time” if it appeared to be interfering with the administration of justice.
Interim guidance was first issued on December 20 2010, under which journalists had to make an application to a judge to request permission to use electronic devices to send text. However he has removed the requirement from today following a public consultation.
The move clarifies a grey area in the law which has previously seen different rulings applied to different regional newspapers.
For instance, while the Northern Echo was year granted permission to Tweet live updates from the trial earlier this year of a village postmaster accused of murdering his wife, Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle was denied a similar opportunity in the trial of two men accused of helping killer Raoul Moat during his murderous rampage.
Although there will no longer be any need for representatives of the media and legal commentators to apply for permission to use text-based devices to communicate from court, members of the public will still have to make an application.
The position of so-called ‘citizen journalists’ is therefore unaffected by the new guidance, which apply only to court proceedings not covered by reporting restrictions.
Lord Judge said: “The judge has an overriding responsibility to ensure that proceedings are conducted consistently with the proper administration of justice, and to avoid any improper interference with its processes.
“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.”
The guidance makes clear that photography in court remains strictly forbidden, and that sound recordings may be made only with the court’s consent.
It also stresses that anyone using electronic text is strictly bound by the existing restrictions on reporting court proceedings under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
Lord Judge said: “It is presumed that a representative of the media or a legal commentator using live, text-based communications from court does not pose a danger of interference to the proper administration of justice in the individual case.
“This is because the most obvious purpose of permitting the use of live, text-based communications would be to enable the media to produce fair and accurate reports of the proceedings.
“As such, a representative of the media or a legal commentator who wishes to use live, text-based communications from court may do so without making an application to the court.”
“When considering, either generally on its own motion, or following a formal application or informal request by a member of the public, whether to permit live, text-based communications, and if so by whom, the paramount question for the judge will be whether the application may interfere with the proper administration of justice.”
The judge added: “Without being exhaustive, the danger to the administration of justice is likely to be at its most acute in the context of criminal trials e.g., where witnesses who are out of court may be informed of what has already happened in court and so coached or briefed before they then give evidence, or where information posted on, for instance, Twitter about inadmissible evidence may influence members of a jury.
“However, the danger is not confined to criminal proceedings; in civil and sometimes family proceedings, simultaneous reporting from the courtroom may create pressure on witnesses, distracting or worrying them.
“It may be necessary for the judge to limit live, text-based communications to representatives of the media for journalistic purposes but to disallow its use by the wider public in court.
“That may arise if it is necessary, for example, to limit the number of mobile electronic devices in use at any given time because of the potential for electronic interference with the court’s own sound recording equipment, or because the widespread use of such devices in court may cause a distraction in the proceedings.”
The judge concluded: “Subject to these considerations, the use of an unobtrusive, hand held, 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.”