Live tweeting #JusticeforCol’s inquest: interfering with the proper administration of justice?

Last week I shared a blog post and infographic detailing how I’d spent the money raised to support my Open Justice work in 2018/19. One of the inquests I covered in that period was Colette McCulloch’s.

Colette was a brilliant and talented young woman who was just 35 when she died. You can read a Guardian article outlining the inquest findings here, the full narrative verdict from the coroner here and the family statement in response here. You can also see a clip of her parents, Andy and Amanda McCulloch being interviewed by Victoria Derbyshire the day after Colette’s inquest concluded here

The art work they are sitting in front of was painted by Colette. At the end of Col’s inquest Amanda thanked the coroner in court stating ‘We shall cite you as the kind of coroner that everyone else can hope to receive when having an inquest’.

This was the second coroner that Col’s parents had met on their journey for justice, the first eventually agreeing to recuse himself and step aside after Col’s parents instructed their legal team to judicially review the coroner.

There was much to admire about Coroner Martin Oldham, he took time to get to know Colette, reading her writing and looking at her art works. He was kind and considerate to everyone, Colette’s family and friends, witnesses giving evidence and legal counsel and those assisting. His voice broke as he started delivering his narrative verdict and he took a moment to compose himself, it was incredibly powerful to witness such humanity. There’s no reason why legal processes should lack humanity, but in my (very limited) experience it’s rare to see an official display emotion. I’m not sure it should be.

If you’re still reading you may wonder what this has to do with objections about live tweeting. I’ll try to explain. Col’s inquest was the fourth I tweeted in its entirety, after Connor Sparrowhawk‘s Richard Handley‘s and Danny Tozer‘s. Since Col’s inquest I have tweeted two more, Joe Ulleri‘s and Sasha Forster‘s. I have also live tweeted the tribunal of Connor Sparrowhawk’s psychiatrist when she was struck off for a year, the HSE prosecution of Southern Health and the reporting restrictions order appeal #RROAppeal in the Court of Appeal that Louise Tickle brought.

The Chief Coroner’s guidance is clear on the use of twitter, it states:

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.

The Lord Chief Justice’s Practice Guidance 2011 states:

It is presumed that a representative of the media or a legal commentator using live, text-based communications from court does not pose a danger of interference to the proper administration of justice in the individual case. This is because the most obvious purpose of permitting the use of live, text-based communications would be to enable the media to produce fair and accurate reports of the proceedings. As such, a representative of the media or a legal commentator who wishes to use live, text-based communications from court may do so without making an application to the court.

I have been so fortunate that the legal teams representing families have usually supported my presence, and those who have not actively encouraged it have remained neutral. I guess it’s self selecting and if the legal representatives did not agree with my methods, a family may not be in touch with me in the first place.

I feel I owe so much to Charlotte Haworth-Hird, Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Paul Bowen, Connor’s legal team. If memory serves me correctly it was Caoilfhionn who suggested that we might like to live tweet Connor’s inquest, or maybe Sara and I hatched up the plan and she just encouraged us, I honestly can’t remember but I know that I felt so confident in the legitimacy of our actions with their support. I’ll often channel that support and ask myself what Caoilfhionn would say [and yes play out her answer in my head in an Irish lilt] when I’m doubting my presence in court, or someone else is questioning it.

Even at Connor’s inquest there was discussion, before the jury entered court, about the live tweets and whether it was an acceptable endeavour. The coroner was persuaded. Questions have been asked and objections raised most times I’ve been in court. If objections aren’t raised on the first day, often the second or third will be worst. On two occasions it has been the discussions that have developed as a result of the tweets that have bothered people (I say people, it’s always the NHS or care provider representatives who raise objections).

I always have a separate account for whatever I am tweeting, and nowadays I don’t tweet at all from my personal account when I’m in court, to prevent concerns being raised about me expressing my opinion or views (on anything) while a case is ongoing.

I do my utmost to type as quickly and clearly as possible what is said. I try incredibly hard not to offer a slant or an angle, and to be fair to everyone in not filtering information. I don’t see there to be a value in my sharing court proceedings if what I offer is partial or selective, although I do recognise that I am inherently biased and may well filter unknowingly…. although when I miss stuff it just comes down to how quickly people speak.

I am currently in an artificial bubble of confidence because the last two inquests I live tweeted (Sasha’s that has just finished and Joe’s from a couple months ago) no objections were raised. In fact at the start of Sasha’s the coroner actually addressed me in court (a first) and checked I was familiar with the guidance and I shared my approach. No objections were raised by any of the counsel there, despite there being 8 interested parties (including two representatives from Serjeants’ Inn – this will make sense later on). At Joe’s inquest there wasn’t even any discussion. There was a lot of media interest in Joe’s case and I was just one of many people there daily. The other unusual factor at Joe’s inquest was the family were represented by a barrister from Serjeants’ Inn, Simon Cridland. Joe’s family were keen for me to tweet and Mr Cridland said he remained neutral.

Which was notable because it’s nearly always been barristers from Serjeants’ Inn who have objected to my live tweets. At the start of Colette’s inquest the barrister acting for Milton Park, the ‘care provider’ responsible for Col at the time of her death, was Paul Spencer of Serjeants’ Inn. He had also represented Southern Health in their HSE prosecution that I’d live tweeted the year before.

Mr Spencer had prepared a bundle for the coroner, consisting of six A4 pages of threads of my personal tweets and discussions. I wasn’t given a copy of this bundle, or included in proceedings in any way. I’m grateful to Sam Jacobs of Doughty Street who was representing Col’s family and spoke up on my behalf.

I sat at the side of the courtroom wincing as Mr Spencer referred to me as Ms Julian. Never before have I wanted to jump up, stamp my foot and point out it’s Dr and I’ve been Dr Julian for close to twenty years, a title I rarely use but on this occasion the repeated reference to Ms Julian was somewhat rankling.

I stayed in my seat and felt my anxiety rise as Mr Spencer proceeded to read a selection of my personal tweets, sent after Dr Murphy’s GMC tribunal when a colleague of his, Richard Partridge, had subjected Sara Ryan to hours of questioning. Mr Spencer speaks very well, he has the air of authority of a highly educated white male, who is used to people listening to him. In his rather plummy accent he proceeded to read to everyone assembled in court a number of my tweets, these are the ones I managed to scribble down:

At this stage my heart is racing, I’m doing what I always do when nervous, trying not to laugh. Mr Spencer has a way of saying arse like no-one else. Fundamentally however, I find myself agreeing with what he is reading out.

I think the way Sara was treated at Dr Murphy’s tribunal was unethical, it was deeply hard to sit and witness, never mind type, to see a friend who you respect more than most people on earth being bullied and (re)traumatised…. and for what?

Sara has written about her experience at the GMC tribunal at least twice on her blog, once shortly after Writing Trauma and once a few months later when the transcripts arrived Battery by bundle and the MPTS transcript. At the time of those tweet exchanges I was angry and processing how I’d sat by and witnessed someone be treated so brutally, without even realising at the time just how horrific it was, or being aware of the deeply damaging impact it would have.

Mr Spencer continues, he moves on to this offering, again imagine the accent and intonation, the dissonance between this courtroom and my colloquialisms (when I pronounce shafted there’s no r in it, when Mr Spencer pronounces it there appear to be about 5 between the letters a and f).

The reality of course is that Southern Health failed to refer Dr Murphy to the GMC. She was eventually suspended for a year and admitted 28 counts of failings against her, but Southern Health didn’t report her, they did indeed just report the nurses, numbers of them. So while my choice of language might not be my finest, the criticism has no factual inaccuracy to it.

I’m sat in court concerned about the distraction that all this is. I’ve seen Andy and Amanda that morning, I’d some warning about Mr Spencer’s bundle but I didn’t want them to be sitting through this, especially as Amanda was very nervous about giving her evidence. My lesser fear was that I was also very aware that I’ve just forked out a fortune for 3wks accommodation and am about to be booted out of court. My gratitude for my crowdfunders having my back in these situations is hard to describe.

This whole scenario probably only lasted 10 or 15 minutes in its entirety but I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole as Mr Spencer read his final killer blow

Mr Spencer somehow managed to stress the words ‘have’ ‘shit and ‘industry’ while skipping over with the lightest inflection bereaved families and torture. I was mortified, while buoyed up on the remembrance of the outrage I felt then, and to be honest still feel now. Although I need to develop my language to be less basal.

Mr Spencer then came out with a bizarre statement, my note reads ‘Ms Julian claims to be a Guardian journalist but I’ve found no accreditation of such and only two articles she has written for them’. Where to even go with this. I’ve never claimed to be a journalist, I wish I was a journalist and I have considered going to study for a qualification to get access to professional accreditation, but I have never claimed such a thing. I’ve also never (knowingly) written anything for the Guardian so if anyone finds those articles please be sure to ping them over to me.

Step in Sam Jacobs, open justice defender from the hallowed chambers of open justice that is Doughty Street… Sam helpfully reminds the coroner that he only need be concerned with whether my tweets are proper and accurate in my reporting of what happens in court; Sam points out that these are tweets in my personal capacity, he even manages to politely describe them as ‘strong views using strong language’ and makes reference to Trump’s vocabulary (possibly the only time I’d accept a comparison to that man).

Sam reminds the coroner that his focus will be on whether tweeting poses a danger of interference to the proper administration of justice. He can find no case for this given the coroner is unlikely to be influenced by them, or indeed to review them.

Paul Spencer then makes reference to paragraph 29 in the guidance about the fact that witnesses are likely to be anxious; a number of staff from Milton Park were very anxious about giving evidence and the live tweeting is likely to increase that anxiety.

Coroner Oldham takes a few minutes and informs the court he will not be influenced by tweets, he will not be looking at them. Picking up on Sam’s earlier point about it being welcomed that we have members of the public engaged in these proceedings, Coroner Oldham states that live tweeting is entirely appropriate, he is of course concerned with the anxiety of the witnesses and the family, reporting must be fair and accurate. He starts from the premise that justice in this country must be one of open justice and must be heard.

I genuinely strive to be fair and accurate. To everyone involved. I suspect all I interfere with is the reputational fall-out of those whose care, behaviour or approach is under the spotlight. As a side note Milton Park paid for a PR consultant to attend the inquest, which I think tells us something about their own priorities.

I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever interfered with the proper administration of justice, and fail to see how amplifying what happens in court ever could. After all justice must not just be done, it must be seen to be done. Onwards.

2 comments on “Live tweeting #JusticeforCol’s inquest: interfering with the proper administration of justice?”

An excellent article highlighting the important work that you are doing. Shows that the establishment like Serjeants’ Inn are rattled about Live Tweeting because it holds them up to scrutiny and exposes them.

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