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Nova Scotia judge welcomes Twitter in courts

By: Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

 | Jul 28, 2014 - 11:46 AM |
The display of a smartphone is pictured in Berlin on Feb. 2, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, dpa, Soeren Stache

The display of a smartphone is pictured in Berlin on Feb. 2, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, dpa, Soeren Stache

HALIFAX - A top judge in Nova Scotia says he is surprised at the positive impact live-tweeting inside the courtroom has had after the province's judiciary recently relaxed the rules on the use of Twitter in the courts.

Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court allowed reporters to live-tweet proceedings during the trial of Lyle Howe, a Halifax lawyer convicted of sexual assault.

"I couldn't get over how well it had worked," Kennedy said in an interview, describing it as the closest thing to gavel-to-gavel coverage he has seen.

"I didn't think it was going to be as accurate as it turned out to be. I have to say that I was very impressed.

"I'd come back (to my office) occasionally and go on the computer after I'd been to the courtroom — I'd tell my colleagues that I used to have to come back here to find out what happened," he said, kidding.

New guidelines governing the use of electronic devices in the courtroom came into effect in Nova Scotia on May 15, allowing communication such as tweeting and texting for any purpose, including publication, in most courts, unless otherwise banned by the presiding judge.

The policy places restrictions on tweeting from youth, mental health and family courts, and do not affect statutory publication bans, including revealing the identity of youths or sexual assault victims.

During the Howe case, senior Crown attorney Darcy MacPherson used printouts of a reporter's tweets as a set of reference notes.

"I was on a break on the weekend and I went online … and it dawned on me at that moment: I have a great asset here. It's something that I'll be able to make use of," he said.

MacPherson, who had never looked at Twitter prior to the case, said the tweets served as another set of objective eyes, allowing him to catch things he and his co-counsel may have missed.

Though his notes remained his primary source of information, MacPherson said he was struck by the usefulness of this second, objective account.

Though he has yet to sign up on to the social media site, he said he can see lawyers increasingly taking advantage of reporters' tweets in the future.

Kennedy said allowing Twitter into the courtroom is part of the legal system's quest to improve access to justice.

"That's not just a matter of making it easier for people to come before the courts from the point of view of expense and time and that kind of thing, but also better communication of what we do," he said.

"I think that an informed public would agree most of the time with what we're trying to do," he added. "Tweeting, that's all part of that."

Kennedy said he would like to go further. He said he intends to introduce video broadcasting of criminal court proceedings, though he added he would likely begin with a sentencing hearing to avoid the risk of negatively impacting witnesses.

"Does anybody think that 25 years from now there won't be television in those courtrooms?"

Follow @gwomand on Twitter.

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