Judges and social media – lessons from the Canadian CJ’s oration: #law


My journalism law students were treated to a rare excursion in their first week of semester last Thursday (September 15) when we took the train to Brisbane to hear Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin speak on ‘Courts and the Media’.

It was the annual Supreme Court Oration, hosted by Queensland Chief Justice Paul de Jersey who my students heard speak on a similar topic in February this year at Bond University.

Chief Justice de Jersey has been a pioneer in embracing new technologies and advancing open justice and has allowed journalists’ recording of proceedings for accuracy purposes (not broadcast) as the default position in Queensland courts.

He gave us advance approval to report McLachlin CJ’s oration via a live Twitter feed to the #cjcqld stream which some of you might have followed.

It was a superb introduction to the subject for my students, as McLachlin CJ traced the basic principles of open justice and assessed the best and worst aspects of the relationship between the judiciary and the media.

It was interesting that the speech seemed to receive no media coverage – or at least none that I can find over the past week – so our Twitter feed seems to be the only record of the speech until the Chief Justice’s staff process and release the full text after her return to Canada.

I have republished all my own tweets from the speech below for your gratification. I deleted my students’ tweets simply because I wanted to get this blog posted and would want to seek their permission before posting them, but you might find them by searching for the #cjcqld hashtag within Twitter. (The tag stands for “Chief Justice of Canada in Queensland” but coincidentally echoes the acronym of a former anti-corruption body in this state – the Criminal Justice Commission.)

You can get the gist of the oration from the tweets below, but here I wanted to draw your attention to the only tweet where I editorialised on the Chief Justice’s comments.

It came at a point where she was questioning whether accuracy and fairness in the reporting of court proceedings would suffer in the era of new technologies and social media.

I tweeted: “McLachlin CJ: How can 140 characters of Twitter report a complex High Court case effectively? #cjcqld (Like this, CJ!)”

The chief justice admitted on several occasions during her insightful address that she did not claim expertise in new technologies – particularly social media.

But this particular comment proved the point. We proved it was quite feasible to report her oration via Tweets posted to a hashtag where anyone following could take in the complexities of her argument, albeit in bite-sized capsules.

We do not claim to be trailblazers – conference presentations are being covered via hashtags on Twitter throughout the world as you read this.

The same approach can quite easily apply to a complex court case, and has indeed already been allowed, pioneered here in Australia by a Federal Court judge in the iiNet piracy case in Sydney two years ago.

Picking up on this small point might appear pedantic, and certainly no disrespect to McLachlin CJ is intended.

I am in awe of the level of specialist knowledge senior judges need to absorb in almost every case in the modern era. They need to come to grips with the most technical aspects of obscure areas of the law, along with much of the expert knowledge so crucial to understanding the context of the facts and expert witness testimony in a host of areas.

New technology presents yet another challenge for them in what is already a daunting learning curve.

As Reuters has reported, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer set up both Facebook and Twitter accounts, which he used to monitor discussion rather than participate himself. But Justice John Roberts was reported in the Huffington Post in June this year admitting he did not even know what a tweet was.

Slate has followed the debate in the judiciary over the use of social networking.

Given the rate of uptake of social media in its various forms globally over the past five years, it is worrying that some leading judges in our highest courts remain relatively ignorant of its basic functions and applications.

We cannot expect them to become instant experts on everything, but they at least need to have a working lay knowledge of new technologies if we are to remain confident that they will make informed decisions when legal issues arise.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer! My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2011


@journlaw tweets of Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s Supreme Court of Queensland Oration on Thursday, September 15, 2011:

Canadian CJ Beverley McLachlin about to speak on ‘Courts and the Media’ in Brisbane. Coverage at #cjcqld

Qld CJ de Jersey introducing Canadian CJ McLachlin: Canada: ‘that other great democracy of the northern hemisphere’ #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: court-media relationship not always comfortable: sometimes concentrate on prurient and sensational #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: free press and independent judiciary combine to foster the rule of law. Media helps build confidence in judiciary #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: “public confidence in the judiciary is essential to the rule of law” #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: speaking about the Rule of Law Index and what it says about nations’ cultural acceptance of rule of law #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: judiciary’s power rests in the confidence of the people #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: fundamental to building confidence is to publicise what the courts and justice do. #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: open justice helps educate the public and ensure judges’ accountability and has a therapeutic function #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: qld cj is leading champion of open justice #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: open courts principle works because of the media … the means of communicating proceedings to the public at large #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: paradoxically media also uniquely placed to undermine public confidence in judiciary #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: gives Canadian child pornography decision where media focussed on judge rather than issues. #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: sensationalised media trials run parallel to courtroom trials #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Uses example of media coverage of Casey Anthony trial and impact on Florida justice system implying jury got it wrong. #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: they promoted the tv verdict over the court verdict #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Where justice is sensationalised or trivialised the damage to confidence can be profound #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: need to encourage fair and accurate coverage. Restricting info won’t work #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Holding reporters in contempt won’t build confidence either #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: needs positive interactive approach to the media … Not seeing media as enemy to be avoided at all costs #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Court info officers play a useful role #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Canada has court-press liaison committee to foster positive relationships and improved coverage #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: need coverage that is accurate, prompt and complete#cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Canadian Executive Legal Officer has press briefings function as source of info and background briefings. 3yr term #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: whatever cts can do to help journalists report accurately can only improve public confidence in justice #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Promptness vital to press. Canada has media ‘lockups’ where media allowed to arrive an hour early and read judgments #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: third mutual interest: appropriately complete reporting of proceedings and decisions #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Qualified completeness because some restrictions needed on children, sexual matters etc #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Media technology in courts must not impact in any negative way on admin of justice #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: TV cameras in court: gives several reasons against … Privacy, intimidation, disturbance, sensationalising #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: But cameras also allow public to see and experience the court … Maximum open justice #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Canadian practice is to not allow tv cameras in trial courts, but allow stationary cameras in Supreme Court #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Appellate courts started to allow cameras, but networks not that interested #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: closing on cautionary note: identifying which media to work with is becoming more difficult as social media takes off #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Profound cultural shift in how media is communicate signals shift in who reports court proceedings #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: anyone with a keyboard and a blog can report their version of a court case and who is to say they shd not? #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: blogs not always objective or thoughtful and sometimes hurtful. Will accuracy and fAirness be casualties of new era? #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: How can 140 characters of Twitter report a complex High Court case effectively? #cjcqld (Like this, CJ!)

McLachlin CJ: “It is crucial we understand the technology and how it is being used.” “Personally, I struggle with it” #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: relationship betwn crts and media “is one of inescapable interdependence” #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: The media and the courts are locked in a sometimes uncomfortable embrace. #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: “What is at stake is nothing less than the rule of law.”#cjcqld

Bond student @fionaself asked about the impact of social media on defamation. CJ: should be no relaxation in law for new media. #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Talks about the prickly issue of defamation via hyperlinks … Doesn’t know how it will be decided. #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: We do not have a court blog. Consensus in Canada is that judges should not be on Facebook, but some pushing boundaries #cjcqld

Applegarth, J. asks whether instant access to transcripts shd be available via live streaming. She says maybe but cautious re impact#cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: Juries researching on web … We hope juries will follow instructions not to. Problems in jurors contacting accused #cjcqld

Q on judges becoming celebrities like Judge Judy. McLachlin CJ: Canada being what it is, I’m not a celebrity and am not recognised. #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ: “Courts are there to serve the public so they have to account to the public.” #cjcqld

McLachlin CJ oration has ended and so has our live Twitter stream. Thanks for following! : #cjcqld

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “Judges and social media – lessons from the Canadian CJ’s oration: #law

  1. Pingback: Law and Media Round Up – 26 September 2011 « Inforrm's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s