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No phones in court, please

No phones in court, please


District Judge Nigel Law reminds solicitors and litigants of the etiquette and the law surrounding telephones and recording in court

I am of the generation whose parents didn’t own a television for many years. In my case our first television arrived just before the World Cup final in 1966. I didn’t have use of a phone except with my parents’ permission for many years and didn’t use a computer until the 1980s. Now everyone entering a courtroom carries a telephone – some litigants even carry three (I will leave it to the readership to work out why they have three phones).

I am fed up with phones ringing during proceedings and hearing a beep that lets us all know that a text or other messages has been received. I continue to have the phone battery or telephone handed to my usher for safe keeping, and on occasions I have excluded the litigant from court if they are represented and the hearing can proceed in their absence. I haven’t yet had to revert to contempt proceedings but I fear it will happen soon. With your help, my colleagues and I won’t have to.

Judge’s permission

Solicitors should ask the judge for permission to look at their telephone to check their diary for forthcoming hearing dates. I cannot see that that request would be refused.

You should ensure that if referring to a skeleton argument, filed but not on the court file, you have a paper copy to hand to the judge. The same applies to legal references. You shouldn’t try to hand your telephone or tablet to the judge. It isn’t appropriate. Emailing while in court to assist the judge should again only be done with the court’s permission.

Facebook entries and other social media which may assist an application should always be in paper copies and text messages should be transcribed: do not anger the judge by not having done that. If such evidence only comes to light when your client shows you those entries, the only way forward may be for your client to email them to you and for the evidence to be on your device. Do though ask the judge if they agree with what you propose to do. If not, be prepared to pay some printing charges through the court office (£10 a document up to ten pages and 50p each sheet thereafter).

Recording proceedings

I am particularly concerned about the recording of family proceedings, and solicitors should remind their clients that their phones should be switched off. There are notices all over my courtroom door and in the waiting areas. The law is contained in section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which makes recording court proceedings a contempt of court, a criminal office. The worst-case scenario is that your clients can be jailed or fined.

The Manchester Evening News reported that a court spectator, Jack Towes, who in an open court hearing used his mobile phone to photograph and film proceedings, was sentenced at the Crown Court in Manchester to three months’ imprisonment.

Meanwhile, on a slightly different topic of covert recording at home, may I refer you to M v F (Covert Recording of Children) [2016] EWFC 29, in which a judgment of Mr Justice Peter Jackson addressed a parent’s use of a child to covertly record evidence by sewing bugs into the child’s clothes (SJ160/46).

The consequences of the actions were to:

  • Damage further the relationship between the relevant adults;

  • Demonstrate the father’s inability to trust professionals;

  • Create a secret that the child may later unearth;

  • Affect the family’s standing in the community;

  • Create enormous wasted effort on the part of the father and his partner in setting up and transcribing the recordings (with the father ordered to pay the mother’s costs attributable to the time spent on them); and

  • Increase the costs of the proceedings.

Not a single piece of useful information was produced. Peter Jackson J considered that concealing a device on a child for the purpose of gathering evidence in family proceedings is ‘almost always likely to be wrong’.

Do please warn your clients.

District Judge Nigel Law sits at Blackpool County Court and Family Court and is media and PR officer for the Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges