With the increasing use of social media in our society, the Judiciary face an uphill struggle in curbing the habit of people using their phones in the courtroom. Initially, embarrassing ring tones were the worst of our worries but now via social media most things can be shared with the public. But is social media useful in court proceedings?
There can be arguments for the use of social media in the courtrooms; people can sit in the public gallery and watch proceedings, so how is that different to a live video broadcast? Why does it really matter if photographs are taken by telephone as they appear in the press the next day anyway? You could argue it is in the public interest to provide live tweets of cases, ensuring people are kept up to date minute by minute.
The other side is of course; the courtroom is sacred, people should not view the Judiciary as social media stars, not everyone wants their twitter feed being filled with legal updates and most importantly it is disrespectful to victims’ families posting photographs and comments on Facebook or Twitter relating to the person in question.
Whichever side of the argument you agree with, the Judiciary took a clear approach in the recent case of Solicitor General v Cox .
Two teenagers were in the sentencing hearing of their friend. They took photos and videos in the courtroom and posted them on social media, making derogatory comments about the Judiciary.
Taking and publishing photographs in court is already a summary offence under Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925. Here though, the Court determined that given the gravity of their acts they should be tried for contempt of court.
The first of the teenagers pleaded guilty to contempt, but the second pleaded not guilty.
To be guilty of contempt, there must be a specific intention to prejudice the course of justice. The second teenager argued that he didn’t have that intent by sharing the photographs and videos.
Despite his arguments, the application to commit for contempt was granted. The taking and publishing of the photos met the required element of the crime of contempt.
The decision was reached for a number of reasons, the key ones being that;
- Distress that would be caused to the victim’s family;
- Fair administration of justice and the court’s duty to uphold the rule of law;
- The risk it could cause to jurors and witnesses given that people could be recognised;
- Both teenagers knew mobile phones were prohibited in the courtroom and were deliberately defying the court rules.
The use of social media, be it at work, school or in the courtroom is very difficult to police. The public gallery teamed with the press should be sufficient to allow open access to the legal proceedings, giving people with an interest a chance to keep up to date, whilst not forcing it on others via social media who may not wish to know.
Solicitor General v Cox .shows that the Judiciary has no desire to change their approach to the use of mobile telephones in court, particularly when it comes to the involvement of social media in proceedings.
It is important that victims and their families feel safe in an already very daunting environment particularly in criminal proceedings, but also in civil proceedings. Social media will and always will remain a key part of modern life, however people may fall divided as to whether the Judiciary is stuck in the dark ages given this decision, or whether they have struck the right balance in their duty to administer justice.