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technology in court

Justice Beverly McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada during visit to Globe and Mail. Jan.23.2001Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The verdict is in from the country's top judge: The justice system must learn to deal with social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.

That's because a free press and an independent judiciary have an "indispensable" role to play in a democracy that is committed to the rule of law, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said Tuesday.

In a speech to students at Carleton University, Judge McLachlin said the media in general are essential to building public trust in the administration of justice.

But she says newspapers, radio and television are "old technology" at a time when anyone with a keyboard can create a blog and call themselves a journalist.

She wondered whether fairness and accuracy might be lost in the world of Facebook, tweets and instant messaging, which she says are part of a profound, cultural shift in how people communicate.

"Some bloggers will be professionals and academics providing thoughtful commentary and knowledge," she said. "Others will fall short of basic journalistic standards. Will accuracy and fairness be casualties of the social media era?

"What will be the consequences for public understanding of the administration of justice and confidence in the judiciary? How can a medium such as Twitter inform the public accurately or adequately in 140 characters or less of the real gist of a complex constitutional decision?"

Judge McLachlin's remarks are timely given the so-called "honour killing" trial that ended in Kingston, Ont., over the weekend with convictions and life sentences handed down against a man and his parents in the first-degree murder of four family members.

Justice Robert Maranger, the trial judge, banned tweeting from his courtroom. He allowed the use of electronic devices, such as laptop computers for the purposes of note-taking only.

However, other high-profile criminal proceedings – such as the Russell Williams murder case in October, 2010, – featured live tweeting from the courtroom. The disgraced former air force colonel pleaded guilty to two first-degree murder and numerous sexual assault charges.

In a question-and-answer session, Judge McLachlin declined to comment on the Canadian cases.

In her speech, she said that North American judges "are already grappling with some of these questions. Should judges tweet? Should they be on Facebook? And other, more complex, queries wait in the wings."

The issue raises serious questions, she said, including whether online publicity can prejudice the fair trial of an accused.

"If witness or juror contamination is a concern with television, is it not even more so with ubiquitous social media accessed or received automatically via a hand-held device?" Judge McLachlin said.

Regardless, Judge McLachlin concluded that the interests of the media and the courts "are inextricably intertwined."

"As the media invent and re-invent themselves, so must judicial understanding evolve of how we relate to the media. We must look forward; we dare not hang back.

"This is our only choice, for what is at stake is nothing less than the rule of law."

The Canadian Press