You can "check in" to the High Court of Australia and receive daily microblog updates from the Victorian Supreme and County Courts via Twitter. During a recent interview with ABC Radio National, District Court judge Judith Gibson was asked if judges should be allowed to use social media. She replied: "You can't have judges being like vestal virgins in an ivory tower ... because an essential part of being a judge is the reflection of community values."
It is clear judges need to be across social media, as it appears in evidence and in various causes of action for online offences. But does the use of social media by judges undermine their position as revered members of society, and will that in turn impact on the integrity of the legal system?
In NSW, conduct is governed by the Judicial Commission of NSW Code of Conduct and the Judicial Officers Act 1986. While the code does not expressly address social media, the long- standing principles can be applied at the judge's discretion.
Meanwhile, in February, the American Bar Association issued its formal opinion, stating: "A judge may participate in electronic social networking, but as with all social relationships and contacts a judge must comply with relevant provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct and avoid any conduct that would undermine the judge's independence, integrity or impartiality, or create an appearance of impropriety."
Although there have been no test cases to inform the issue of judicial interaction via social media in Australia, it is an issue that clearly needs addressing.
The problem is not that judges engage with social media per se, but how they use it, professionally and personally. No comment on social media can be considered private, and as such any comment a judge makes should be treated as public comment.
Although social and electronic media is dotted with ethical and legal traps, most jurisdictions increasingly use these technologies to improve the efficiency of the litigation process and increase public knowledge and awareness.
In 2009, the Federal Court left it open to an individual judge's discretion as to whether they allow cases to be covered by social media from their court. Victoria is leading the way for use of social media by the courts. The Supreme Court, the County Courts and the newly established Koorie Court in Victoria all use Twitter to post information about public events, judicial appointments, opening times, fees, listings, even judgments from criminal trials.
The Victorian courts are prolific microbloggers, allowing links via Twitter to live-stream sentencing procedures.
Tweeting from courts is recognised as an issue in most jurisdictions. In NSW, it is governed by section 9A of the Courts Security Act 2005. Breach of the section by citizen-journalists and the public in using social media during proceedings could result in up to 12 months in prison. Social media is here to stay and, while it poses challenges for the judiciary, its importance as a communications tool far outweighs the risks. So, yes, Her Honour may be your "Friend" - but don't expect any privileges.
Originally published in The Australian.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.