Legally blogged

Posted on 28th May 2011 in Law Reporting

Put together a room full of legal bloggers, a goodly supply of wine, and some current legal issues to discuss, and the only thing missing will be enough time to do it all justice.

That’s what we found when representatives of the ICLR joined some of the top names in legal blogging at the Law Society last week for the second #lawblogs event. The event was organised by 1 Crown Office Row, who produce the UK Human Rights Blog, and compered by Catrin Griffiths of The Lawyer. Among the distinguished “blawgers” on the panel were Joshua Rozenberg (presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action), Siobhan Butterworth of the Guardian, Adam Wagner of 1 COR, Carl Gardner (who writes the Head of Legal blog) and David Allen Green (who writes as Jack of Kent).

One of the subjects of discussion was the role of legal blogging and tweeting in helping to increase public understanding of legal issues. This is, of course, a core function of law reporting. The point about law reports is that they are written by lawyers, and in a technical way that enables important new developments in the law to be understood and applied by other lawyers. But they are not always very good at increasing public understanding of the law. While this may not be a good reason for changing the way law reports are written, it certainly suggests there might be some scope for law reporters to use the more informal medium of blogging to explain cases of public interest in a way the public can understand.

As Siobhan Butterworth pointed out, blogging, even mainstream blogging hosted by a newspaper, and subbed and edited as part of its official content, is only part of the conversation. Nevertheless, as Joshua Rozenberg added, such online discussion plays an important role at a time when detailed legal coverage in the print media is being downgraded. (It is certainly noticeable how much less space The Times devotes to its law reports than it used to, yet The Times should perhaps be congratulated for continuing to run them at all, as it has done ever since the days it was called the Universal Daily Register; whereas The Independent, The Guardian, the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph, all of which once ran proper law reports, written by barristers or solicitors and therefore citable in court, no longer do so.)

If that process of downgrading is to continue then, as Carl Gardner suggested, writing online maybe what all serious journalism will become. Carl also thought that Twitter would change the way bloggers write, encouraging the “micro-blog” form. Joshua thought tweeting had a role in breaking news but felt serious comment needed more time and the space which, of course, the internet (unlike print media) allows.

David Allen Green confessed that he had become a legal blogger by accident, through following the Simon Singh libel case and wanting to comment on and explain the legal issues as they were happening. He was fascinated by the question of “how has this ended up in court?” Did he have to listen to journalists or could he look at the material himself? If he could, then perhaps he could place that material in the public domain so that, instead of being told what to think, people could decide for themselves what they thought about the case.

All these points of view are what might be termed external, in relation the coverage of legal proceedings. But what role should blogging play for a barrister or solicitor engaged in a current case? Adam Wagner drew attention to the difference in the professional rules applicable to barristers, who must not express a personal opinion on facts or issues arising in a case in which they are instructed (see para 709.1 of the Bar Code of Conduct) whereas a solicitor may do so if, in the exercise of their judgment, it seems appropriate (guidance to rule 11 of the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority Code of Conduct). Adam thought that barristers should have the same freedom of discretion as solicitors (though it could be argued, of course, that solicitors should be under the same constraints as barristers). That said, he thought most legal blogging and tweeting would not be about a lawyer’s current cases, but rather about general points of law, and would be aimed at clearing up misunderstandings caused by misreporting elsewhere.

And so the discussion continued. Among the audience were many other distinguished or widely read blawgers, including human avatars of “Copyrightgirl“, “Millymoo” (who writes her blog beneath the wig) and “Legalbrat” who writes for the FT. Sadly absent was any human or virtual representative of Charon QC, who had been billed to appear, but whose presiding spirit seemed to smile down on the occasion like a departed Cheshire cat. Or not.

It occurred to me, as all the distinguished blogerati commented in turn on each issue raised, that there is an affinity between blogging and the common law. Just as the common law develops on a case by case basis, so the discussion of legal issues is advanced on a blog by blog basis. It may even develop on a tweet by tweet basis, though it seems that any communication limited to 140 characters must be in need of expansion (by way of a link to something more substantial) if it is to increase public understanding to any measurable degree.

Law reporting is critical both to the development of the common law and also to that public scrutiny of the administration of justice on which its democratic accountability depends. But the latter role is also well served by court reporting of all kinds, by responsible journalism in all media. The fact that the media may have changed should not alter the responsibilities of those providing the coverage. As Carl Gardner pointed out, it’s not just about teenagers in pyjamas showing off any more.