Quebec is the latest jurisdiction to issue a protocol on the use of electronic devices by reporters and lawyers inside a courtroom, sparking some heated but predictable responses.  Is this a violation of a citizen's right to stay informed?  Does it impinge freedom of expression?  Does it tarnish the principle of a fair and open trial?

By J-Source Law Editor Thomas Rose

Quebec is the latest jurisdiction to introduce guidelines for the use of electronic devices from inside a courtroom.  As of today, lawyers and reporters are barred from tweeting, texting, or e-mailing any information about court proceedings while those proceedings happen.  

Response to the new protocol has been predictable.  Quebec Court officials defend the regulations citing a need to go slow and to preserve decorum while courts ease themselves into the realities of the electronic age. Media groups and individual journalists decry the decision as an unwarranted infringement on their right to keep citizens abreast of timely information that helps them better understand the justice system.

The use of electronic devices in courtrooms, especially by media representatives and lawyers, is an issue that is not going away and Canadian courts have signalled that it is an issue with which they will be dealing on an on-going basis. In Quebec’s case, the new regulations are the result of discussions among jurists at all levels of the province’s judiciary. And as Quebec Court spokesperson Annie-Claude Bergeron has stated, the guidelines are merely a starting point and remain open to further adjustments.

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As stated in an earlier commentary on this issue, the real question perhaps is not so much whether there will be live reporting from Canadian courtrooms, but how best to proceed. The Canadian Centre for Court Technology, which has itself held lengthy discussions with jurists from across the country, continues to advocate for a set of national guidelines.

A uniform set of guidelines, applied equally and fairly to reporters in all Canadian courtrooms will likely do more to ensure public faith in the judicial system than an instant tweet from inside a courtroom.  If, as with Quebec’s decision, restrictions are applied equally to all journalists, how does that violate the right to a fair trial or for that matter, freedom of expression? It may rankle the commercial competitive interests of media outlets eager to attract news consumers with instant tweets or e-mails, but that is not and should not be the concern of justice.

In the meantime, journalists everywhere need to apprise themselves of the guidelines applicable in their region and where it exists, continue their excellent reportage of courtroom proceedings confident in the knowledge that while the legal system may not move as quickly as some would like, it does move, and generally it does make decisions that are in the best interest of justice and citizens.