Incoming Supreme Court president spells out comms challenges facing courts

Effective communication is vital in building trust in the legal process, according to Lord Robert Reed, who will become President of the UK Supreme Court next month.

The Supreme Court's online streaming service of judgements is an important way of communicating with the public and media (pic credit: bpperry/Getty Images)
The Supreme Court's online streaming service of judgements is an important way of communicating with the public and media (pic credit: bpperry/Getty Images)

The senior judge commented: "Courts have to be accessible to the public and to communicate effectively with the public, so as to build public understanding and trust."

In a speech at a legal event in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he outlined the importance of the internet in opening up the Supreme Court, citing its website as being the "most effective means by which the Court can communicate with the public".

Hearings are livestreamed, and simplified explanations of judgments are made live to camera when a judgment is handed down.

"The aim is to explain the essence of the decision to the general public in five minutes. The judges are given professional training in how to do this, and also media training of a wider kind," he said.

The Court is also using the internet to enable schoolchildren to quiz judges via Skype in an 'Ask a Justice' scheme.

This "enables the Court to make direct contact with young people and their families and may be their only direct contact with the judiciary".

When it comes to traditional media, the Court takes a three-pronged approach: informing the media about court business; considering media requests for access to judges; and rebuttals and corrections of media coverage.

The Court operates in "an intensive media environment", he said, and "shortly before we hand down a judgment in which there is likely to be media interest, our communications team may hold a confidential media briefing, explaining the judgment and its implications and answering the journalists’ questions."

During his speech, at the Judicial Forum for Bosnia and Herzegovina in Jahorina last month, Lord Reed added: "The confidentiality has never been broken, but we would not follow that practice in high-profile or price-sensitive cases."

Judges 'not celebrities'

He explained that media requests for access to judges are "considered on a case-by-case basis, and only a few are granted".

This is because "it is very important that judges should not become celebrities, and that justice should continue to be regarded as impersonal".

Social media

The Court has more than a quarter of a million followers on Twitter and several thousand on Instagram. Social media enables it to "communicate more widely with members of the public, particularly younger people".

Judges should be able to make personal use of social media, he said. "It would not be appropriate, even if it were practicable, to prohibit the use of social media by judges. [They] are not expected to become isolated from the ordinary life of the community in which they live, and social-media platforms have become a part of ordinary life."

He added: "Indeed, it is only through active participation in social life that judges acquire direct experience of its problems: problems which they may be called upon to confront in their professional capacity."

But the senior judge warned: "There are aspects of social media which present risks to a judicial user: risks to their perceived independence and impartiality, reputational risks, and risks to their personal wellbeing and safety."

Judges need to understand those risks and be aware of "potential problems arising from other people’s social-media accounts," he said.

"The media have examined the social-media accounts of judges’ wives, children and grandchildren, and even those of people more remotely connected to the members of the Supreme Court, for any comments which they might have made about Brexit. Those comments have then been used to question the impartiality of the judge concerned."

Thumbnail: Lord Robert Reed, incoming President of the UK Supreme Court (Pic credit: Vaclav Salek/CTK Photo/Alamy Live News)

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