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Fair, accurate reporting a must under new policy

A new policy allowing the use of electronic devices in Ontario courtrooms has benefits, but must be practised with caution, says Toronto-area family law lawyer Andrew Feldstein.


The policy, established by the Ontario Superior Court, paves the way for journalists and lawyers to use electronic devices, but bans members of the public from doing so, the Toronto Star reports.  Read Toronto Star

The directive, which comes into effect on Feb. 1, says that electronic devices in silent mode can be used discreetly in courtrooms by counsel and journalists to transmit “publicly accessible live communications” unless the judge orders otherwise in criminal, civil or family law court.

Journalists will generally be allowed to use cellphones and smartphones, computers and other electronic devices to write live blogs, tweet, live stream or use similar systems to write about what is happening in a courtroom, as it happens, unless a judge rules otherwise.

“On the positive side, Canadian courts are supposed to be open to everyone, so they can see justice being done, and live blogging and tweeting certainly make courtroom proceedings much more open and transparent,” says Feldstein.

“That fundamental principle of Canadian justice is certainly important in criminal and civil law. But I question some of this openness when it involves much of family law and personal lives.”

While most family law cases don’t attract a lot of publicity now, that could change easily, says Feldstein.

“In my area of family law, I can imagine some journalists, especially on sports, entertainment and political blogs, deciding to cover divorce proceedings because they think they can tweet ‘scandal' and ‘dirty laundry’ linked to a celebrity,” he says.

“And it would be easy to fill a website without a lot of work if the traditional experience, skills and legal knowledge of reporters covering the court beat can be replaced with a junior who just needs to recognize gossip and type quickly, without adding context and insight based on reporting experience.”

The current note-taking process journalists use covering court cases, coupled with the fast walk down the courthouse corridors, gives them some time to think about what they have heard and seen before appearing on television standing on the courthouse steps, says Feldstein, noting print journalists also usually have the benefit of editors reviewing their words before the presses roll out.

“Starting February 1st, journalists will need to work under time pressure to an extremely high standard, making sure they pick the important quotes, issues and testimony to tweet or blog, without much time to weigh their choices,” says Feldstein. “What they tweet flows worldwide in seconds. And lawyers have a new informal but practical obligation to adapt to this increased speed of court coverage, too, helping journalists and media be accurate, confirming spellings, and clarifying points of law before the blogs get posted.”

Feldstein has one other major concern.

“Just who is a journalist, and what counts as media?” he says. “If a divorcing woman’s sister decides to start a blog tracing the day by day progress of the divorce, does that blogger count as media? Does a blog run by a family law mediator count as media? My web site, www.separation.ca, has several blogs, including video commentary by some of my firm’s lawyers. Can I send a junior lawyer to cover an interesting case, for posting on a www.separation.ca />
“On balance,” says Feldstein, “I believe Canadians will be ahead thanks to these electronic devices in the courtroom, especially in civil and criminal courts, and in family courts, with caution. But improvement will only occur if traditional trained and experienced journalists and the newcomers from whatever backgrounds who will inevitably join them, work with an overall goal of fair and accurate reporting, and not gossip and gotcha journalism.”

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