The Use of Social Media by Australian Courts
30 January 2016 | Emeritus Professor Margaret Jackson and Dr Marita Shelly
This article explores how Australian courts are using social media to disclose information about decisions as well as to advise about court appointments, media reports and administrative matters. It examines how the social media channels are being used and any issues or risks associated with that use.
- Social media offers further channels to an organisation to promote its activities and services.
- A clear social media strategy is needed to ensure that how each channel is to be used is appropriate and effective.
- Additional resources are required particularly if Facebook is to be monitored and managed
Social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook are being adopted by government organisations, non-profit bodies, schools, businesses, and police as a means of providing information to the public, professionals and stakeholders.1 The police, for instance, use social media both in investigations and for general communication to the public, and emergency services have used social media effectively in natural disasters.
Courts have also begun to realise the value in using social media to communicate directly with the media and public about the work of the courts. In Australia, courts now use Twitter,2 Facebook and YouTube to varying degrees. This article briefly examines this use and highlights any issues or risks associated with it.
Use of social media by courts
The court system is a very traditional and conservative environment, and the use of social media in such an environment is both innovative and challenging. In the last decade, there has been increasing focus on courts not only facilitating the media's access to court documents and information, but in also increasing accessibility for the community.3 Social media provides opportunities to facilitate both the media and community access to courts.
One of the perceived strengths of social media is its ability to improve communication between an organisation and its stakeholders through exchanges of information and ideas. Social media also offers channels not totally dominated by the media. In August 2011, the Chief Justice of Victoria, the Honourable Marilyn Warren, stated that the "courts should take advantage of social media such as Twitter and Facebook to better explain themselves to the public".4
Courts have always had a cautious approach to reporting and broadcasting of proceedings and decisions.5 So when courts themselves decide to tweet information about decisions and proceedings, these concerns must be handled with care. Court reporting requires that disclosure must not interfere with the administration of justice.6
Use of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube
The Supreme Court of Victoria was the first Australian court to commence a Twitter account in March 2011. The Magistrates Court of Victoria started a pilot Twitter account in July 2012. The County Court set up a Twitter account in October 2012 but the account did not become active until about March 2013 when a new media person was employed. The Family Court commenced a Twitter account in October 2012. Other courts with Twitter accounts include the Supreme Courts of NSW, South Australia, Tasmania, and the ACT, plus the District Court of NSW.
One of the reasons Victorian based courts were the first courts to adopt Twitter may have been the existence of a very active court social media group in Victoria, comprising representatives from the courts, from the Justice Department and from justice related bodies such as the Judicial College of Victoria, the Law Institute and the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Board.
The authors examined the first four court Twitter accounts started and found that they worked well, developing a new channel of communication, albeit a one-way channel. The court officers we interviewed were confident that they were reaching new audiences who would not normally visit their websites. The cost of operating the accounts was low, depending on one, sometimes two people to manage content, usually as part of their existing duties. The activity on the various accounts varied, often because the person responsible for the tweets left the role or the champion of social media moved on.
The way the courts used Twitter depended on the level, as, for example, the majority of Magistrates' Court of Victoria tweets tended towards public relations and the provision of general information about the court (opening hours, changes to fee structures, etc), and the majority of the Supreme Court of Victoria tweets related to advice about judgments and appeals.
The level of the court influenced the content of tweets and the potential risk. There is only a low level of risk associated with tweets about court closures and other administrative details, links to media articles and court appointments. The risks are higher when the names of parties are being tweeted and links to court hearings are provided. The public interest in tweets from lower tier courts is obviously lower than in the tweets around judgments.
A few Australian courts have set up Facebook pages. For instance, the Supreme Courts of Victoria and NSW have done so. The County Court of Victoria may have one but it is not active. However, a search of Facebook pages would appear to indicate that other courts have Facebook pages, namely, the High Court, the Federal Court, the Family Court, and the Supreme Courts of South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. And some courts appear to have two Facebook pages. These pages vary considerably in content and in tone. In some cases, many posts should have been removed as they are offensive, rambling, not relevant or meaningless. In other cases, the posts are relevant and have been submitted by people who think it is the official court page.
So what is happening? It should be noted that Facebook has established a Facebook page for many commercial addresses. We describe these as shadow pages. Facebook explains that "when someone checks into a place that doesn't already have a page, an unmanaged page is created to represent the location"7 . This unmanaged page will have the words "Unofficial Page" under the cover photo. Individuals can post material to these pages, thinking that they are leaving a post on the court Facebook page. Because the pages are unmanaged, the material is not monitored at all, nor is offensive material removed.
This shadow pages reinforce the fact that a social media presence has to be carefully managed. For those courts that have set up an official Facebook page, it is a straightforward step to take over management of the unofficial page and to merge it with the official page. The NSW Supreme Court appears to have done that. Leaving Facebook pages unmanaged is not a good strategy for presenting a professional and impartial social media presence. It leads to considerable confusion as well so that individual wanting to post a picture of a friend's admission, for example, may inadvertently post to the unofficial page so that the friend's picture is then followed or preceded by ravings of disgruntled people, much of which is offensive.
Even if a court decides not to open a Facebook page, they still need to manage the unofficial Facebook pages. Just a look at the High Court's unofficial Facebook page demonstrates the need to be able to remove the page altogether or to take over management of it. Incoherent, angry and really weird posts sit alongside photos and posts about visits by various musical artists and choirs holding concerts on the premises. However, if an organisation does not have an official Facebook page, then taking control of the unofficial page is hard. The only option is to email Facebook and request that the page be closed.
The content of the two courts with official pages has been monitored. As noted above, the Supreme Court of NSW has removed its shadow page; the Victorian Supreme Court has not. The posts on its unofficial page included numerous photos and stories about recent admissions as well as the usual miscellaneous comments and rants.
As at 1 June 2016, the most recent nine posts on the Supreme Court of Victoria's page were:
- 10 May 16 — by the Supreme Court — announcing launch by the Judicial College of Victoria of its Charter of Human Rights Bench Book
- 15 May 16 — post by a person saying she tried to get tickets [to Open Day?] and was it sold out?
- 19 May 16 — by the Supreme Court — advertising Courts Open Day
- 25 May 16 — by the Supreme Court — notice to the profession issued regarding the wearing of wigs
- 25 May 16 — individual's comment
- 26 May 16 — individual's comment
- 30 May 16 — by the Supreme Court — advising of a talk by two judges on social media
- 31 May 16 — by the Supreme Court — winner announced of a lucky draw Open Day competition
- 1 June 16 — individual commented, liking the post and provided a link to an article on US Supreme court appointments.
The Supreme Court of NSW uses its official page to post primarily about judgments. Of 17 posts between 26 June 2016 and 9 June 2016, all advised about new judgments except for one advising about a speech by the Chief Justice. Each post about a judgment included a short summary and a link to the judgment. It seems to tightly manage third party posts and comments.
As well as maintaining a webpage or a social media presence via Twitter or Facebook, some higher level Australian courts host an official YouTube channel. For example, the Family Court of Australia, the Federal Court of Australia, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Supreme Courts of NSW and Victoria all have a YouTube channel.
The Family Court joined YouTube in October 2013 and have uploaded 11 videos to their channel and have 150 subscribers. Their most viewed video relates to applying for a divorce and serving divorce papers. Of the 11 videos uploaded, eight are informative, providing information about the court's processes. The Federal Circuit Court of Australia YouTube channel only holds six videos, all of which also appear on the Family Court of Australia. Of the four videos that the Federal Court of Australia has uploaded to its YouTube channel, two are summaries of judicial decisions.
Similar to the Family Court of Australia, the Supreme Court of Victoria joined YouTube over three and a half years ago and of the 15 videos uploaded, eight are promotional or media related and five are instructional, relating to the court's case management system.
Unlike the Supreme Court of Victoria, the Supreme Court of NSW has not uploaded any content on its channel.
General comments on issues
Some academics and court officials have suggested that there are a number of risks in the use of social media tools in the court system.8 Most of these suggested risks concerned the misuse of social media and digital media by jurors, actions of citizen journalists, and information that has been suppressed by a court "going viral" via social media. Risks associated with courts using social media tools were mainly related to the lack of court staff expertise in social media, accidental communication of court orders and decisions, difficulty in maintaining up-to-date information, and slow decision-making processes about what to post. The authors' prior study of Twitter use by four courts found that human error, managing confidentiality and privacy, and internal lack of support were the main risk areas.
Twitter accounts appear to be well managed and active. Depending on the level of court, tweets tend to be mainly administrative at the lower levels while other levels of courts refer to recent decisions. South Australian courts all fall under the one Twitter account and that appears to skew the tweets more towards administrative and promotional tweets, rather than news about decisions, although there are some.
At present, either the lack of resourcing or expertise in social media management appear to be the main area of risk for the courts and Facebook. The existence of shadow pages results in a perception that they are not being managed, which, of course, is the case, and looks very unprofessional. Every time there is an admission to practice, there are photos and congratulatory messages placed on these pages but such posts often sit uncomfortably alongside the more extreme messages. There are only two active Facebook pages and the approach differs slightly between the two, with one focusing predominantly on communicating information about court decisions. Given the percentage of Australians who use Facebook, 95% in 2016, it is a little surprising that this social media channel is not being used by more courts.
YouTube accounts appear to have been set up with a burst of enthusiasm which may have petered out. Use of YouTube by those participating courts may need to be reviewed and refreshed.
Australian courts are now using social media channels as a new way to communicate information. They use it primarily as a one-way form of communication so Twitter is the most used channels. Facebook offers more challenges for court staff as it needs constant monitoring and oversight to manage two-directional communication. The existence and management of shadow Facebook pages need to be handled as well. Effective use of social media does involve additional resources, however, particularly when a channel like Facebook is being used. It is easy for anyone to be misled about whether the Facebook pages are official or not. The use of YouTube is not extensive and is not very active.
Apart from the risks associated with unregulated shadow Facebook pages, the risks in courts using social media tools appear to be minimal. Like any organisation, there needs to be support for the use of the tool by senior management to ensure that the information being communicated remains relevant and of interest to recipients and does not become a mini version of a website. This means that there is a social media strategy, constantly reviewed, about how the various channels are to be used. There are certain statutory restrictions placed on courts in respect of confidentiality and privacy and these have to be complied with. Resources have to be provided for the more time-consuming sites such as Facebook. Finally, the responsible social media staff need to be of a sufficient level of authority to be empowered with the management of the account.
Emeritus Professor Margaret Jackson
Dr Marita Shelly
Note: Originally published in Internet Law Bulletin, December 2016, vol 19 no 9.
 Twitter is a micro-blogging service that limits users to 140 characters. It is easy to use, location free and can be used via a mobile phone. Currently, it is used by 19% of social media users in Australia. Facebook is used by 95% of Australians. See SensisSensis Social Media Report 2016 (1 June 2016), www.sensis.com.au/assets/PDFdirectory/Sensis_Social_Media_Report_2016. YouTube is an internet based service that allows registered users to upload and share videos. Non registered users can see videos but cannot upload content to the site. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Centre found that 63% of internet users in the United States access YouTube, which makes it the second most popular social networking site in the United States behind Facebook. See M Anderson "5 facts about online video, for YouTube's 10th birthday" (2015), www.pewresearch.org/fact.../5-facts-about-online-video-for-youtubes-10th-birthday/..
 M Jackson & M Shelly "The use of Twitter by Australian courts" (2016) forthcoming Journal of Law, Information & Science
 J Gibson "Judges, cyberspace and social media" (2015) 12(2) Judicial Review: Selected Conference Papers: Journal of the Judicial Commission of New South Wales at 237; A Blackham and G Williams "Australian courts and social media" (2013) 38(3)Alternative Law Journal at 170; J Johnston "Courts' new visibility 2.0" in P Keyzer, J Johnston and M Pearson (eds), The Courts and the Media: Challenges in the Era of Digital and Social Media Halstead Press, 2012 p 41.
 M Warren "Open justice in the technological age" (2014) 40(1) Monash University Law Review at 45; M Warren, "Courts must use Facebook, Twitter to counter 'skewing of information'" (1 September 2011) The Sydney Morning Herald, www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/courts-must-use-facebook-twitter-to-counter-skewing-of-information-chief-justice-20110901-1jmr1.html
 See eg the Court Security Act 2005 (NSW), amended in 2013 to introduce s 9A, which prohibits the unauthorised transmission of court proceedings from courtrooms.
 B McLachlin "The relationship between the courts and the news media" in P Keyzer, J Johnston and M Pearson (eds) The Courts and the Media: Challenges in the Era of Digital and Social Media Halstead Press, 2012 p 24; P Keyzer "The courts and social media: what do judges and court workers think?" (2013) 25(6) Judicial Officers' Bulletin at 47.
 Facebook Help Center, available at www.facebook.com/help/257661877677443/.
 See for example A Blackham and G Williams, "Social media and the courts" (2014) 88(3) Law Institute Journal at 31–33; P Keyzer, J Johnston, M Pearson, S Rodrick and A Wallace, "The courts and social media: what do judges and court workers think?" (2013) 25(6) Judicial Officers' Bulletin at 47–51