GJ-logo

Live tweeting inquests and tribunals – 10 top tips of learning so far #JusticeforLB

24 Mar 2018 - 4 Comments

In two days time I’ll be back at Oxford Crown Court with the #JusticeforLB crew, waiting for the Honourable Mr Justice Stuart-Smith to pass down his sentence to Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust after the Health and Safety Executive prosecuted them in relation to the deaths of Teresa Colvin and Connor Sparrowhawk. You can catch up on what has happened so far and follow the live tweets @JusticeforLBHSE.

This is the fourth time I’ve live tweeted a court case or tribunal, the first was @LBInquest in October 2015, then I live tweeted the GMC tribunal into Dr Murphy @JusticeforLBGMC, and in February this year I live tweeted Richard Handley’s inquest @HandleyInquest. In three weeks time I’ll be in York to live tweet Danny Tozer’s inquest @TozerInquest.

I’m currently looking into potential funding sources to enable me to continue live tweeting inquests, tribunals and important events or meetings that related to the lives and deaths of learning disabled people and those with mental ill health. I’m currently canvassing views and opinions relating to the live tweeting, if you’ve got two minutes and could answer five questions please do so here:

Occasionally I get asked for hints and tips about live tweeting court cases. I thought it might be useful to compile a few thoughts and reflections. There are no rules that I know of in relation to this stuff, so these are all just ideas, take them or leave them.

1) Take a laptop

Or whatever device you can type very, very quickly on. Occasionally I’ve used my phone or an ipad but I find that they’re most useful as a back up. If you’re trying to cover what is happening in a court room most of your reporting will be in real time, and therefore you need to be able to type as quickly as you can. There is also no guarantee that you’ll have a table or bench to sit at, most of the MPTS tribunal into Dr Murphy was live tweeted from my laptop on my lap – I had cramp in my calves most evenings from keeping them taught and my laptop balanced. Try to get a table if you can.

2) Arrive early

I always try to travel up the night before to take the stress out of getting to a venue, but then I live in Devon which isn’t too close to anything. On the morning it’s worth arriving early to get your bearings, find out where the case is being heard and try to get online. On Monday, providing Suzi is there, or perhaps another suitably connected JusticeforLB’er, I’ll be live tweeting the sentence as it’s handed down. Oxford Crown Court has dire mobile signal in Court 2 (I’m on EE and had none) and the public wifi network doesn’t reach as far as that court.

3) Create a separate account for your tweets

This is by no means essential but I’ve always done it because the hearings are discrete events and it makes it easier for people to follow just the event. It also means you can download the archive after the event and view it in its entirety. The only obvious downside to this is that you have no followers when you first create it, so you need to do some promotional tweets so people are aware of its existence.

4) Do your homework

Depending on your relationship with the case you may know the details in great detail, which can be a help or a hindrance. In my experience it aways helps to read things in advance, especially witness statements, counsels arguments and the legal bundles, if you can access them. That said I’d no prior knowledge of the arguments to be made in the GMC or HSE cases and still managed to live tweet them.

I find it helps to compile a crib sheet of basic information – who is hearing the case, who is counsel for the involved parties, any key dates or places, I always make a list of key drugs. When under pressure and trying to type in real time the last thing you want is to falter over the correct spelling of fluoxetine or amitriptyline. I keep a paper crib sheet next to me at all times, together with a pen and paper to scribble down key phrases or dates that I struggle to hold in my head.

5) Share the basics at the start of each session

I tend to spell the Barrister’s names out in full at the start of a case or the first time of using. If possible I link to the page on their chambers website. The same approach goes for anyone or any organisation with a public page e.g. Executive Directors at Southern Health or the Directors at Mencap.

Once someone has been introduced in full for the first time then I tend to abbreviate to their initials in follow on tweets. The only exception is the coroner, judge or tribunal chair which I tend to refer to in those terms, which make it easier for people to follow tweets (I think).

6) Do you need to ask permission?

This is a difficult question and I think the answer is, it depends. Certainly almost all courts are open to the public, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is free to tweet. I’ve never been refused permission to tweet (when I’ve asked) although there have been a number of occasions were those who aren’t so keen on the additional scrutiny or public attention have tried to stop me (namely Southern Health). Certain situations have explicit guidance on live tweeting, such as this Chief Coroner guidance from 2016:

33. Live text-based communications by journalists or legal commentators for the sole purpose of fair and accurate reporting are permitted at all hearings, in accordance with the Lord Chief Justice’s guidelines for court proceedings: Practice Guidance, 2011. Phones and laptops must be used silently.

34. Other members of the public who wish to make records in this way must apply to the coroner for permission (Practice Guidance, above). No application need be made by journalists or legal commentators. Except for these purposes, mobile phones must be switched off.

Although this guidance does not define a legal commentator. That said I’ve not always asked permission to tweet, but I have always ensured that the organisation knows of my intention. If you’re not sure of who to contact try the Clerk to the Court or the Press Office are usually very helpful in providing information and advice of what to do.

7) Be factual, tweet word for word and offer no commentary

Another reason I like to have a separate account for live tweeting hearings is because it’s entirely separate from my own personal view or opinion (of which I often have many). When live tweeting hearings I remain purely factual. I try to tweet as accurate and contemporaneous record as is possible and I offer no commentary on the arguments presented.

Wherever possible I tweet verbatim, and where I’m clear that I’ve paraphrased or missed something I will say so in my tweet e.g.

or

I try to avoid this as far as possible, and often if I can not remember the exact phrase or words used I’ll just leave it out, but occasionally the point is key to understand the tweet before, or important context for what follows, so I just flag my paraphrasing in square brackets.

I literally just share what is happening in court, occasionally I might comment on the environment, but this is rare. It can help those following outside the room understand the atmosphere though e.g.

8) Don’t be surprised if you feel guilty/nervous

I’m not sure, this may be unique to me and my general loathing of authority system but whenever I walk into any kind of court, or even into the MPTS tribunal, I feel a mixture of guilt and nerves. The guilt is completely misplaced, the nerves less so. It’s important work you’re doing and you want to be fair to everyone involved so perhaps the low level nerves and anxiety aren’t a bad thing, but it may help to be prepared for them.

9) Resign yourself to the fact you won’t capture it all

With the best will in the world you’re not going to capture everything that goes on. Your tweeting, however fast you are, is not going to be as comprehensive or accurate as the court transcript. That said after LB’s inquest Sara had access to the court recordings of evidence and I’ve listened to one or two of the sessions and compared it to the tweets and was pleasantly surprised at how much they captured the gist of what was going on. It’s worth being fair to yourself though, know that you can’t capture everything, so capture as much as you can.

Occasionally when it’s dense case law or legal technicalities that are being discussed I have to confess to letting go of the detail, unless of course I know in advance what is to be cited and then I try to follow, tweet it and link in to the publicly available judgements.

My technique has evolved over time and now if someone is in the flow of an argument I try to capture it all in one tweet (going way over the character count), then I copy and paste the whole text (too many times I’ve done this incorrectly and lost what I’ve just drafted so I’m doubly careful about that now) into a tweet, delete it back to 140/280 characters; copy and paste the whole lot into a reply, delete what I’ve already tweeted, copy and paste the remaining text again, delete it back to 140/280 characters, tweet it, and repeat it again in a reply until the whole lot is captured in a thread.

This all takes time, occasionally I sit there trying to tweet the last argument, kicking myself because what is currently being discussed is as interesting, or more relevant, but you can only do so much. Threaded tweets are helpful for those following at home (I’ve been told). You have to start a new thread occasionally though, so try to keep it to one legal point or argument per thread, if possible.

You will also spot mistakes in your tweets, usually typos or grammatical errors. I have been known to delete tweets and retype, some typos are too glaring to ignore, but this does waste valuable time. So if you’re going to live tweet a hearing resign yourself to errors, especially a couple days in when you’re absolutely bushed. Incorrect use of their and there is my most common error I think, that and my keyboard autocorrecting to Sloven Health and Mencrap – which I do go back and correct when live tweeting, to keep it factual and as accurate as possible.

10) Recharge: yourself and your devices

It probably goes without saying but I always have a power lead, and a back up battery for my devices where possible. Sadly there are no back up human batteries on the market just yet, so make sure you take time to recharge yourself in whatever breaks you get in court (go to the loo even if you don’t think you need to because its bloody hard to concentrate to everything going on in court if you need a pee); keep water and snacks with you for an energy boost.

I can’t describe how draining live tweeting is, or at least how draining I find it. Often I just want to stare blankly into space at lunchtime and rarely do I have any energy after a day live tweeting to do anything. Which is a shame because I always think it’ll be a great opportunity to catch up with friends, explore the area, do some work emails. The reality is that every time I’ve just been dead behind the eyes by the time court finishes sitting for the day. So prepare, if you can, for complete exhaustion.

My final point is one about the emotional impact of live tweeting inquests and tribunals. Nothing could have prepared me for how devastating it is to hear what develops in court, to listen to bereaved families sharing their loss, and indeed their mammoth efforts to get care and treatment for their loved ones. I do this work because I care, the emotional impact of the failings you are exposed to, repeatedly in some cases, is unquantifiable.

I have come to admire the legal teams who work in such environments. Previously I remember finding it almost distasteful the way they’d laugh and joke with each other in breaks, or outside court in corridors. Now I’ve come to view that as a safety net, an almost coping mechanism. Of course it’s a job to them, that doesn’t mean they care less, but they have a professional distance that I imagine is absolutely required to enable them to work longer term.

I’ve a long way to go still to develop my own distance, I’m not sure I ever will (or might ever want to). The downside of that is complete emotional and physical exhaustion and a constant companion of cynicism and disappointment at the pointlessness of it all. If you’re going to live tweet a hearing, especially one that is important to you, or one in which you are personally invested, then I’d recommend marking out some sofa time afterwards, or whatever you do to relax. I find myself wiped out for days and weeks. You need to figure out your self care if you want to be around to help expose the next injustice [I’m still working on this myself, but flagging it for others as an awareness point].

 

4 Comments

  • John Daniels / March 24th, 2018

    Brilliant and it reinforces the fact that this is is no small task that you undertake. I believe this is such a valuable service with your blog and public voice on Twitter you are as much a ‘journalists or legal commentators’ by virtue of the outcomes as anyone in those capacities. It would be good if there were sufficient ‘rapporteurs’ official or otherwise to cover many more proceedings, thus supporting those for whom these proceedings are a lonely, costly and draining process. Additionally you allow those of us who have not experience these things to become educated such that we have a wider picture. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Liz Piercy / March 25th, 2018

    Even more full of admiration for what you are doing. I can tell the amount of preparation you do by the way you slot in documents so quickly in just the right place. Remember about looking after your wrists. I think you need to factor in recovery time when you can’t do other work, when you work out how much you need to cover your costs. And you need to think how often you can do this and also look after yourself and earn a living. Take care Lizx

    Reply
  • 'We've done you proud' — Families speak after NHS Trust fined £2million over patient deaths | Radio Free / March 26th, 2018

    […] whose reporting of inquests and tribunals through live-tweeting has shone a light on Connor’s and other state-related deaths. Here is Connor’s family’s statement in response to today’s […]

    Reply
  • georgejulian.co.uk – Ask without shame #OpenJustice / April 9th, 2018

    […] advice to bereaved families and blogging and sharing information publicly, both to encourage and support others to do similar work, but also to produce accessible and useful summaries of what has happened in court. Depending on […]

    Reply

Leave a Comment