New Rules on Tweeting in Court

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, has issued interim guidance opening the way for simultaneous reporting of court proceedings through social media, email and mobile communication devices.

The guidance only applies to courts in England and Wales. It follows a district judge’s decision to allow journalists to use Twitter to give live updates at the bail hearing of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Lord Judge said: “The use of an unobtrusive, hand held, virtually 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.”

The guidance sets out the following general principles:

  • The statutory prohibition on photography in court will remain in place and sound recordings must not be made without the court’s permission.
  • There is no statutory prohibition on the use of live text-based communications in open court. An application may be made for permission to use a mobile communication device for this purpose. The Court must be satisfied on granting permission that the use of such a device will not interfere with the proper administration of justice in the case. The guidance notes that live media reports on proceedings as they happen are unlikely to pose a problem.
  • Interference with the proper administration of justice is likely to be at its most acute in the context of criminal trials. 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.
  • Permission may be withdrawn if the court proceedings are adversely affected.
  • Permission may be limited to representatives of the media for journalistic purposes.

Whilst there has never been a statutory prohibition on the use of live text-based communications in open court, the general position before the new guidelines was that all mobile phones, laptops and other electronic devices had to be turned off in court. An application could be made formally or informally (by communicating a request to the judge through court staff) to activate and use such devices, solely in order to make live text-based communications of proceedings.

The guidelines now indicate that representatives of the media and legal commentators who wish to use live text-based communications from court may do so without making an application to the court. However, these devices should only be used for the simultaneous reporting of proceedings to the outside world.

The guidance is unclear on who will be covered by the phrase “representatives of the media and legal commentators”. The guidance states that it is presumed that media and legal commentators will not pose a danger of interference with the proper administration of justice, suggesting that provided an individual is sufficiently experienced to be able to report court proceedings within the laws of contempt, they will come within the guidance.

Members of the public will still need to apply for permission to use text-based communication devices for the purpose of reporting. The use of such devices is likely to be limited to representatives of the media for journalistic purposes particularly where use by the wider public poses a danger to the administration of justice, for example, where witnesses who are out of court may be informed of what has already happened in court or where information posted on social networking services about inadmissible evidence may influence members of a jury.

Lord Judge’s guidance has been issued pending the outcome of a public consultation on the use of live text based communications by the Judiciary, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Press Complaints Commission, the Society of Editors and other interested members of the public.

Bulletins are for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters. Where reference is made to Court decisions facts referred to are those reported as found by the Court. Please note that past bulletins included in the Archive have not been updated by any subsequent changes in statute or case law.