Quebec courtrooms to become Twitter-free zones

MONTREAL – Quebec courtrooms will become Twitter-free zones come Monday as new rules governing the use of electronic communications and technology come into effect.

As other Canadian jurisdictions weigh whether to allow tweets and texts from the confines of a courtroom, Quebec judges have decided to put an end to the practice.

The new directives ban emails, tweets and text messages from the courtroom without the consent of a judge, although lawyers and journalists will be able to use the electronic devices for taking notes.

The rules come at a time when many reporters use popular social media tools like Twitter to relay information in real time and draw readers to their websites.

A spokeswoman for the Quebec Court says judges from her tribunal as well as Superior Court and the Court of Appeal drafted the guidelines together. They came after months of discussions.

“It is prohibited to broadcast or communicate text messages, observations, information, notes, photographs, audio or video recordings from inside the courtroom to the outside,” says the directive.

Reactions to the proposed ban have been mixed. One Montreal defence lawyer who herself is prolific on Twitter welcomed the rules, saying neither the legal community nor journalists were ready for social media in the courtroom.

A columnist countered that the rules are a step backward and that it will be up to the courts to adapt.

Groups representing the media have been critical of the rules, calling them hasty and overblown.

Brian Myles, president of the Quebec Federation of Journalists, says he believes the judiciary acted too quickly and overreached in applying a blanket rule to all courts after just a few experiences with the technology.

“Twitter is a tool of the 21st century and it allows journalists to bring the citizen into the courtroom,” said Myles, adding that magistrates made the rules without consulting anyone.

Filming and taping hearings is prohibited so tweeting and microblogging provide a way for journalists to report on court hearings with a “sense of urgency and immediacy,” he said.

“When you deprive reporters of this tool, you deprive citizens of useful information that allows them to understand better the justice system.”

Quebec court spokeswoman Annie-Claude Bergeron said the guidelines were drafted after careful consideration, with the issue of decorum in mind.

She added the guidelines are not set in stone and will evolve with time.

“Eventually, each court will deal with its own experiences and we’ll decide from there if the rules need to be tweaked,” Bergeron said.

Lawyers and journalists will be able to keep their devices on vibrate or silent, but will be asked to switch them off if they are thought to be disturbing court proceedings. They will be able to use the devices to take notes, but not to send out messages.

Members of the public will have to keep their electronic devices off, as is already the case. The rules will apply to all Quebec courtrooms and those who don’t follow them could face sanctions.

Myles noted that if decorum is at the centre of the issue, it makes no sense to let reporters type on a tablet but not be allowed to tweet. He said the tweet ban could create problems for courthouse decorum as reporters shuffle in and out to send messages.

Patrick Cormier, chief executive officer of the Canadian Centre for Court Technology, credits Quebec with coming forward with directives rather than leaving judges in the lurch without any rules to guide them.

In the rest of Canada, rules vary from province to province, but many have opened the door to social media being used in court. This year, Ontario Superior Court allowed tweeting for journalists and lawyers only.

A group of judges and other members of the justice system recently proposed a set of national guidelines to remedy the current patchwork of policies. Cormier’s organization went even further, suggesting that anyone attending an open court hearing be allowed to use electronic devices set to silent or vibrate mode unless the presiding judge specifically rules otherwise.

Cormier noted Quebec’s rules only forbid journalists from using Twitter while court is in session. They can still tweet from outside and he called Quebec’s rules “a first step.”

“It doesn’t mean this policy is set in stone for 10 years, I think it’s a stepping stone, I see it as something positive,” Cormier said.

“After a few years, if those institutions and individual judges become more comfortable with social media, the policy can be reviewed.”

It’s not the first time Quebec’s judiciary has had to deal with issues of decorum. A decision to limit media interviews and filming to certain areas of the courthouses was met with a legal challenge that ended up before the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the decision in 2011.

Myles said no decision has been taken yet on whether to challenge the guidelines in court.

But Bergeron, the assistant to the chief judge of Quebec Court, said she doesn’t expect huge changes come Monday.

“There probably won’t be a revolution,” she said. “Each judge in each court will continue to be the master of their courts,” she said.




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