#Proceedwithcaution says report on judges and social media

A report issued by the Canadian Centre for Court Technology is not surprisingly, urging judicial officers “to use social media with caution” and calling for more detailed policies and formal codes of conduct in this area.

The discussion paper released May 28 is the latest publication on courts and technology to be issued by the non-profit organization. In 2012, it produced guidelines on the use of electronic devices in the courts.

This time, a working group of nearly 20 participants, from a wide cross-section of justice participants examined the implications of judicial officers —- judges and tribunal members — using social media.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Frances Kiteley says there is a need for more discussion about the use of social media and the implication, both within the judiciary and for members of administrative tribunals.

“The world we are judging in, is overwhelmingly one in which everyone is using social media,” says Kiteley, co-chairwoman of the court technology organization. “It is not like we are in a silo, all by ourselves.”

A survey on social media was distributed and nearly 700 judicial officers in Canada responded. About half of the responses came from judges at the superior or provincial court level. More than half of those who replied are based in Ontario or Quebec. No one from the Yukon responded.

Nearly half of the judicial officers who completed the survey said they visit or contribute to social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, or blogs, “in a personal or professional capacity, to some small extent,” says the discussion paper.

That figure is less than the general population. A Forum Research survey from January of this year showed 18.5 million Canadians are on Facebook and 47 per cent of survey respondents use Facebook more than once each day. Less than one-in-four judicial officers reported using the social network at least once a month, according to the CCCT data.

The main reason for visiting or contributing to social media was to follow or send messages to contacts. Nearly 20 per cent of the CCCT survey respondents said they used social media to share “online multimedia content” that is personal.

The discussion paper also highlights examples where the use of social media in a professional or personal setting, has caused issues for judicial officers.

A Quebec judge declined to recuse herself from a multi-defendant drug trial after defence lawyers pointed out that many of her “friends” on her Facebook page were Crown attorneys. A provincial court judge in Ontario retired and apologized before a disciplinary hearing that stemmed from comments she made on Facebook about two other judges.

And recently, a criminal conviction was overturned on appeal, because a provincial court judge in Ontario independently used Google street view to test the credibility of the accused.

When acting in the capacity of a judicial officer in a trial or a tribunal hearing, the same ethical principles apply, regardless of whether information is found in a book or on social media, says Kiteley. It is less clear what “the line” is, when it is the use of social media in one’s personal life.

“Part of what the report is about, is to spur discussion on where the line might be,” she adds.

In a profession where “reputation is everything” it is important for judicial officers to be fully informed about the potential impact of social media use, says Lisa Taylor, a member of the working group.

Even sharing family information and photos on sites such as Facebook, should be done carefully, says Taylor, a lawyer and journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. She also urges more discussion among judges and tribunal members about social media, with the aim of developing basic policies and education in this area.

“Your digital profile is so easily accessible,” says Taylor.

As well, it is very difficult to remove information, once it has been posted. “The Internet never forgets,” she warns.

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