City A.M. – Judges and social media – Your Honour, should you be using Twitter in court?

A British judge recently resorted to Twitter to appeal directly to one of the parties involved in a case over which he was presiding.

Ellie Yarrow-Sanders was on the run with her toddler son, Olly Sheridan, for over six months. Mr Justice Williams, the High Court judge in the case between Yarrow-Sanders and her ex-partner, wrote directly to her via the Judicial Office Twitter account on 1 February 2019, promising that she will be “given a voice in court” and her case will be treated fairly if she returns.

Social media platforms are built for interaction, which can range from intimate dialogues on Whatsapp, to public posts on Twitter that are shared with millions.

Therefore, Judge Williams’ use of social media in an official capacity is noteworthy. Given that at the time Twitter had over 300m users, his tweet had the result of airing the case before a much wider audience than could possibly have sat in the back of his courtroom.

And it is clear from the use of “#comehomeolly” that Judge Williams hoped to harness the power of retweets and hashtags to reach Yarrow-Sanders herself.

While the use of social media in this manner is unusual, judges have previously employed other media platforms. In November 2018, Mr Justice Mostyn, the judge determining the financial settlement in Anthony McPartlin’s divorce from Lisa Armstrong, lifted reporting restrictions to allow journalists to write that Ant had been “told off” for failing to attend a hearing as “there isn’t one law for the famous, and one for the rest of the community.”

Although this comment was not directed to Ant himself, Judge Mostyn was likely aware that a reputation-damaging statement would reach a celebrity faster, and have a much larger impact than a punitive instruction such as a cost order. Due to the press coverage, Ant offered a response via his spokesperson that he had intended no “disrespect”.

This use of mass media by judges to achieve specific results in ongoing cases furthers the risk of reputation damage to all parties involved, no matter the intention. If this trend becomes more popular, it may present both pitfalls and opportunities for communications advisers. Responses and rebuttals may need to be prepared in case revealing statements are released by officers of the court mid-trial.

Equally, judges may need to show consideration for their own reputation, and therefore require their own media relations strategies – both Judge Williams’ tweet and Judge Mostyn’s comments attracted national media attention.

Notably, this trend could have an impact on the operation and function of British courts for which tradition and formality is deeply entrenched. Both Judge Williams and Judge Mostyn bypassed the lawyers, the conventional intermediaries between judge and party. This could potentially affect the role of the lawyer – from a legal and physical representative of their client to one of an adviser working in the background.

Other symbols of distance and deference, such as the use of “Your Honour”, may fall to the wayside if court statements and judgments have a character limit of 280.

So far, the consequences of judges using public platforms to communicate with or apply pressure to legal parties have been limited to widespread media attention and heightened notoriety of the case. This has seen some success for the judges: Yarrow-Sanders’ sister announced last month that Ellie and Olly were coming home. However, if this trend becomes more widely adopted, what other consequences will there be?

This is a question that both lawyers and communications advisers would be wise to ponder. The answer may impact significantly on the operation and function of both roles.

This article appeared in City A.M. on 4th April 2019.

Read more PG Insight