In the Media

It took just 140 characters to make courts more open

PUBLISHED December 22, 2011

Allowing reporters to tweet from court is a stride forward for open justice and part of a movement to make courts more accessible to the public

Texting over mobile phones is the new court reporting. In most trials reported by ITN (which produces ITV News and Channel 4 News), reporters at court use Twitter to report the proceedings. It?s a new way to engage with our audience.

And it is set to grow. Last week the Lord Chief Justice announced that reporters can automatically tweet and use other forms of live text-based communications from court. This is a stride forward for open justice and part of a movement to make courts more open and accessible to the public.

The media could first tweet from court under interim guidelines last December. The big change now is that reporters do not need to seek permission from the judge in every case. The judge retains the right to stop such communication but the starting point is that reporters can tweet. Members of the public must seek permission.

Tweeting is a relatively new format, but the rules of contempt of court apply ? a change of format, but not a change in what can be reported.

The Lord Chief Justice?s practice guidance also promotes the use of digital communication. It allows reporters to use laptops, mobile phones, iPads, BlackBerrys or tablets to file copy, a blog or send e-mails about the proceedings while sitting in the court.

So what do tweets from court look like? Rupert Evelyn, an ITV Newsreporter, tweeted last Friday from the sentencing hearing at a court martial held in Bulford, Wiltshire, of an RAF helicopter who had pleaded guilty to neglect in flying likely to cause loss of life or bodily injury. Three people had been killed. Tweets appear in reverse order:

?Flt Lt Hamilton sentenced to 1 year and 4 months imprisonment. It is suspended for a period of 2 years? ?Back in court. Sentence imminent . . .?

Earlier Evelyn tweeted the plea in mitigation on behalf of the defendant:

?Defence making the point they do not believe this neglect offence committed by Flt Lt Hamilton crosses the custody threshold? ?Flt Lt Hamilton feels ?profound regret over his behaviour? that day in 2007 say his defence? ?Hamilton?s defence say ?the final fatal [turn] was an error of judgment by the pilot?. Hamilton was the non-handling helicopter co-pilot? ?Flt Lt Hamilton?s defence ?there was no intention, no recklessness on his part? ? ?Flt Lt Hamilton?s defence ?there were obvious failings [by the RAF] ... there was inexperience in the crew as a whole? Although limited to 140 characters, tweeting can deliver a detailed account of the proceedings because of the number of tweets. It can be like a transcript and is now the most contemporaneous way to report proceedings.

The Lord Chief Justice?s announcement will be welcomed by news organisations. It?s a good example of the courts embracing changing media formats and new ways that the public obtain information. Now for the next step forward: after Kenneth Clarke?s announcement in September, this will be the lifting of the ban on filming in the courts.