Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Court Decorum And The Use Of Social Media By Lawyers In The Court Room

By Ebi Robert

The Court is a place of serious legal business. Every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Bar and the Bench is important one way or the other for the determination of one, two or more issues before the court. This suggests that absolute decorum ought to be maintained during Court Proceedings. Apart from verbal disturbance which to a reasonable extent has been curtailed in the Courtroom, the presence of mobile phones in Court has been considered also as a source of disturbance to the court business. This is because each time a phone rings, there is the high possibility that the Court will be distracted. Of course, phone ringing is not just a form of distraction to the Court alone; it is a form of distraction to important gatherings other than the court, especially when the ringing tone of a phone is such that will wake a man in coma. I guess you know those kinds of phones tagged as “CHINA” or “CHINA PHONES”: Res ipsa loquitur. The Court has over the years treated distractions associated with the ringing of mobile phones in the Courtroom as contempt. People appearing before the Court are expected to switch off their phones in order not to be a nuisance to the Court business, but what could be the necessary outcome when the court goes a step further to bar lawyers, police and of course the general public from carrying their phones into the Courtroom?

Months ago, an order otherwise described as “AN ODER FROM ABOVE” was given in the Federal High Court, authorizing security officers to deny lawyers access to the Courtroom with their phones and other communication gadgets. The order resulted to a mixed reaction in the legal community. On the 9th of March, 2018, TheNigerialawyer (TNL), published a report of a Lagos-based lawyer by the name Inibehe Effiong Esq., who petitioned the office of the Chief Justice of the Federal High Court, over the seizure of phones and communication gadgets by security officers at the entrance of the court as a pre-condition for allowing lawyers access into the main building. Mr. Effiong in his petition drew the mind of the Judge to the fact that the act suggests that legal practitioners are being regarded as “Security threats” to the Temple of Justice, as staff of the Court are allowed to gain access to the Court with their phones. He pointed to the fact that the said ORDER has unavoidably denied lawyers access to research, and also prevented them from attending to emergencies which may arise while they are inside the court’s premises.

Just when it seems as if the issue has been settled, the Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, Kunle Edun Esq., forwarded a notice on the 19th day of November, 2018, admonishing lawyers to stop using their phones in court for whatever purpose. According to him, the direction was given by His Lordship, Ogunwunmiju, (PJ). He noted that His Lordship was particularly irked with lawyers that operate their phones by sending texts messages, or checking their Facebook (FB) and What’s app (WA) accounts while proceedings are ongoing.

This direction or should I say, order, has brought to the fore, the argument about the propriety or otherwise of lawyers entering the Court with their communication gadget. Giving reasons why lawyers and police men should be allowed access to the Court room with communication gadgets, Heather Morcroft, owner at Law office of heather Morcroft, a firm outside jurisdiction (Florida Bar), argued in QUORA that for lawyers, it’s partly a courtesy to meet professional needs. However, with all the electronic filings, and regular access to Court records through computer, anyone with a decent smartphone doesn’t need to take anything but their phone to Court to have everything with them that they need. Opinion given by one Peter Guarino, Former Assistant Prosecutor, and Attorney Leonard Cravens all boils down to one point, COMMUNICATION. To coin that of Mr. Effiong, I would say: EMERGENCY COMMUNICATION.

Indeed, the idea to stop the unusual use of phones in the Court room is not out of place because some persons have used smartphones to distract Court proceedings in several occasions. However, I, in my opinion think that stopping the use of phone in the Court room is not the perfect order to be given in this global era, and I say this with all due respect to the evergreen Able Gentlemen at the BENCH.

Today, every profession is going digital, including the legal profession. Many nations have gone outside the archaic method of manual recording of Court proceedings to employ the audio recordings of Court proceedings. The use of audio recording of Court proceedings has helped to a very large extent in speeding up the Courtroom business, enhance advocacy skills, and the rest. Lawyers no longer visit the library shelves to spot citations and dicta of the Court, all they need do is get a simple app like those of the Lawpavillion and Legalpedia and within seconds, the needed principles of law will pop up; they do not need to crack their heads to respond to some objections raised by opposing counsel. Interestingly, even the Bench is enjoying from this goodwill. ICT inclined Judges no longer wait for hours in Chambers to give a simple ruling. With the help of such apps at their fingertips, rulings are given as the principles of law, recent Supreme Decisions are always at their disposal. These are few of the merits of communication gadgets in the Courtroom. Although some may argue that this encourages laziness, I do not think that knowing where to find the law is the laziness, but, not finding it.

Again, to the instruction trying to stop lawyers from Facebooking and Whatsapping; I think one of the issues is the belief by many Bar and Bench men alike, that, Whatsapp and Facebook are communications tools to catch fun only. No, this is not true. Albeit, it is one of their uses, there are other serious businesses these tools can serve and be useful for.

I remember once reading a report of a Judge who communicated the cause lists of the Court to lawyers via Whatsapp. The judge was extolled for the innovation, and also lauded as an ICT-inclined Judge.

Lawyers communicate with their clients through Whatsapp. It is a very good alternative to Text Messages (TM) being that TM has word restriction unlike Whatsapp. Not everybody makes use of the Multimedia mechanism, which is more than the three-fold word count standard of TM. Also, Whatsapp dashboard is prone to internet disconnect as it is with other LITE MECHANISMS. Apart from clients, witnesses could be communicated with via this process, and other Court processes could be also be received through this media tool. Sometimes, persons who do not have airtime on their phone can easily communicate through the tools, hence, in case of emergency, these tools become more than significant. So, except an observer wants to pork nose into what a counsel does with his or her phone, hardly do such tools cause a hiatus to Court processes, as no lawyer addressing the Court will be busy with his phone chatting.

The Bench may have a good reason for stopping lawyers from using their phones in the Court room, but I do think that there are other ways decorum can be maintained. Moving or pressing the Mute-Button of the phone to create a vibration-enablement could be a good option. But Whatsapping and Facebooking is more than a thing of fun, it could be a tool to enhance the same court business we seek to protect.

By Ebi Robert

Co-Editor, TheNigerialawyer (TNL)

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