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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Halsbury's Law Exchange event

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here

Last night Halsbury’s Law Exchange, in partnership with the international law firm Eversheds, hosted its first panel discussion. The subject was “Law Reporting in the New Media Age”.


It was chaired by HLE chairman Joshua Rozenberg, with the panel comprising Siobhain Butterworth of the Guardian, Katy Dowell of The Lawyer, David Allen Green of the Jack of Kent Blog, Andrew Sharpe of LexisNexis and Adam Wagner of the UK Human Rights Blog.

The panel discussed how blogging and tweeting are changing the way law is presented to the public. The event was opened by Neil Mohring, head of Eversheds’ Media Group, who observed that while new media presents significant opportunities, the legal profession is traditionally conservative, which leads to questions about how it can and will adapt.

Interesting accounts were given about how some of the panellists’ blogs began. David Allen Green’s readership, for example, took off after he drew attention to the Simon Singh libel trial and, modelling himself on science bloggers he admired, began to explain to the general public how and why it was the trial had come about. Adam Wagner, for his part, began by modifying an updater service his chambers was already running, and a short time later his blog has attracted over one million visitors.

One of the first questions was why lawyers blog, when blogging doesn’t pay. Years ago a similar question was asked as to why such a high proportion of letters to the Times came from the clergy, which prompted the reply “vanity and an excess of spare time”. In the case of the lawyers the former might often be present but the second is generally not. For example, despite the considerable popularity of his Jack of Kent blog, David Allen Green disclosed that it is largely unremunerative, to put it mildly. Andrew Sharpe observed that a blog he ran whilst he was in private practice was successful in terms of numbers of followers, and raised the firm’s profile accordingly, but there was no way of measuring the effect in a tangible fashion such as increased billable hours.

No blog, therefore, seems likely to displace the day job of a barrister or solicitor. It follows that legal blogs show another side of lawyers somewhat contrary to the public stereotype: doing something of public benefit, and fulfilling the lawyer’s natural desire to set the world to rights. Indeed, the reason LexisNexis established and continues to support Halsbury's Law Exchange itself (which is a non-profit, independent think tank) is part of a commitment as a business to supporting the rule of law.

Further questions included whether blogs and tweets can or should be regulated so that the public are not misled. It was quickly pointed out that most blogs contain a disclaimer that they do not offer legal advice! It was then observed that well-known legal bloggers operate a sort of informal peer-reviewing group, who are quick to correct each other. Also, any blog found to be making egregious errors will quickly lose credibility and readership along with it. Moreover, as Adam Wagner observed, blogs written by practising barristers will fall within the jurisdiction of the Bar Council.

A related question was whether jurors can or should be shielded from the internet and restricted only to what is said in court. The consensus seemed to be that it is simply not realistic in the age of smartphones and near-universal internet access. We therefore may as well face up to adopting the American model where jurors are subject to far fewer restrictions, and are instead urged to exercise their own judgement.

Another can of worms concerns who might be liable for blogs, tweets and retweets that are libellous or in contempt of court. The last word is yet to come on that, one suspects. Siobhain Butterworth opined that even bad mistakes should not attract prosecution if they are quickly withdrawn.

Katy Dowell, speaking from the perspective of a trade magazine, pointed out that the internet has rendered breaking news the exclusive preserve of online media, and in particular twitter, due to the speed of publication. This leads to scoops being given away for free, on the simple pragmatic basis that if one person does not tweet a story, then chances are someone else will.

The debate was fortunate to attract a distinguished audience as well as a distinguished panel. Simon Bucks from Sky News, for example, spoke about his campaign for cameras to be allowed in court, which attracted almost unanimous support, though possible difficulties were acknowledged (for a related post see here).

Many other interesting points were made, and we hope to continue the discussion on this site and in future events.

All of us at Halsbury’s Law Exchange would like to thank Joshua Rozenberg for chairing the event, the panel for lending their expertise, the audience for attending and Eversheds for supporting HLE by kindly hosting the event.

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