Introduced a bill to ban live tweeting and blogging inside courtrooms ... NSW Attorney-General Greg Smith. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
JOURNALISTS may be restricted from live tweeting or blogging from inside courtrooms in NSW under proposed laws banning the use of smartphones and other devices to ''transmit information that forms part of the proceedings of a court''.
A bill before the NSW Parliament, introduced by the Attorney-General, Greg Smith, makes tweeting, blogging or publishing to a website proceedings from within a courtroom an offence punishable by a fine of up to $2200 and a year in jail.
While the bill empowers judicial officers to make exceptions, Mr Smith has thrown open for public discussion the question of whether media should be exempted.
Acknowledging in a speech to Parliament that it is ''important to preserve the principle of open justice'', he said the issue would be considered only after the legislation passed Parliament but before the new law was enacted at a date to be decided.
This means that any changes would need to be made through regulations, which are not debated by the Parliament.
''Although not common, there may be circumstances in which journalists wish to use electronic devices to report on proceedings contemporaneously through new media, such as Twitter or by blogging,'' Mr Smith told Parliament in November.
The proposed law was designed to address ''recent security incidents'' that highlighted how the law had not kept up with new technology, he said.
For example, there was concern about people in court ''transmitting'' witness evidence to other witnesses who were waiting outside the court to give evidence. It is understood this occurred during a court hearing involving an apprehended violence order last year.
But the proposed legislation has been criticised by the Law Society of NSW, which fears it will also restrict the work of lawyers in court.
In a letter to the shadow attorney-general, Paul Lynch, the society's president, Justin Dowd, said the bill could force lawyers to apply to the court each time they wished to email or text a colleague or client outside. Mr Dowd called for legal practitioners to be exempted.
Mr Lynch said the government should amend the proposed legislation to narrow its impact.
''Public reporting of court proceedings and the ability of lawyers to properly represent clients are both fundamental principles,'' he said.
Mr Lynch said the principles ''should be enshrined in legislation. They shouldn't be endangered by legislation. Their protection shouldn't be relegated to as yet unseen regulations''.
Mr Smith is on leave. A spokeswoman for the acting Justice Minister, Brad Hazzard, said the Law Society of NSW and media organisations would be consulted on possible exemptions.
‘‘It is expected that the sending of information when it is part of a journalist’s court reporting work will be exempted in the regulations which are yet to be drafted,’’ she said.
‘‘The regulations will be drafted so as to protect the integrity of the court process.’’
The spokeswoman said lawyers ‘‘may have legitimate reasons for sending information about court proceedings to colleagues outside of court. The regulations will allow appropriate exemptions to cover such circumstances’’.