Social media: the future of Australian courts?

By Dr Alysia Blackham and George Williams

Is it time for Australian courts to embrace social media? MLS Senior Lecturer Dr Alysia Blackham and colleague Professor George Williams of the University of NSW say it could increase accessibility.

Social media
Image above: Stock image. Image credit: Pixabay.

While business and government may frequent the ‘Twittersphere’, Australia’s courts have been far more cautious in engaging with social media.

For the most part, engagement has been ad hoc or about regulating social media use by others; for example, limiting the live-tweeting of court cases or restricting juries from playing ‘amateur detective’ via social media.

But our research shows there are distinct benefits for courts in using social media as a new way to cultivate democratic participation and public engagement with legal processes.

Australian social media use continues to rise. The Sensis Social Media Report 2016 revealed that nearly 70 per cent of Australians have a social media profile and more than a quarter of them check social media more than five times a day.

This makes it a useful communication tool for courts wanting to reach a broad audience, respond to public queries and to make information more accessible.

Indeed, the Victorian Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Warren, has committed to “accelerating the use of social media” for “communicating the work of the court” via Twitter, Facebook and the Court’s website. The Court has also introduced a blog on its website, “to create greater community understanding around controversial issues”.

Taking on an educative function like this is one benefit to courts more generally implementing a social media strategy.

Social media could, for example, facilitate direct engagement with the courts, providing opportunities for members of the public to ask questions or raise concerns. In this way, social media could be an effective channel to promote understanding of court processes.

Through this direct channel of communication, courts could also present their own information on issues without filtering by the media – providing an opportunity to correct inaccuracies and publicise information that may not be regarded as ‘newsworthy’.

Another benefit of social media could be showing a more human side to the courts, as well as helping to reaffirm public confidence in the legal system.

Of course, courts’ use of social media does present challenges. For example, how does one convey the nuances of a complex judgement in a 140-character tweet?

And, perhaps more importantly, what processes are needed to address concerns raised by academics and courts themselves that interacting with vexatious litigants through social media may drain resources and damage the courts’ reputation and authority?

Access, equity and technical literacy amongst the general population are also important factors to consider. While social media is a useful tool, it should not displace other avenues of communication in disseminating information.

Comprehensive risk management is also needed to ensure that issues of data security, individual privacy and the archiving of information are addressed. Recurrent hacking scandals, particularly on Twitter, have raised concerns about the adequacy of social media platforms’ security policies. If a court’s social media account was hacked, this could cause serious damage to its reputation and public standing.

With these challenges in mind, courts’ reluctance to engage with social media is understandable. But the role it can play in enabling accessibility, participation and transparency in our judicial system makes it an important tool.

The pervasive influence of social media in Australian society means that courts have more to gain than lose through a considered approach to its use.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 17, May 2017.