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News - 14 February 2012

International Bar Association launches first global report examining the impact of online social networking on the legal profession

The International Bar Association (IBA) has published The Impact of Online Social Networking on the Legal Profession and Practice– the first comprehensive IBA report that examines the role of online social networking within the legal profession and legal practice, and also assesses whether there is a need to set principles regarding usage.

The popularity of online social networking sites and the increased utilisation of them by those involved in the administration of justice has become both a local and international issue. It is against this background that the IBA Legal Projects Team surveyed the opinions of some of the bodies at the vanguard of the legal profession representing a multitude of legal experts. In all, 60 bar associations/bar councils/law societies from 47 legal jurisdictions were canvassed.

The survey contained 31 questions relating to the appropriateness of the use of online social networks by legal actors, with a particular focus on judges and lawyers. Respondents’ findings include:

•Over 90 per cent stated that there is a need for guidelines for the legal profession regarding the use of online social networking sites;

•Almost 95 per cent of respondents from jurisdictions with a jury system held that, in addition to routine instructions, jurors should receive specific instructions from judges limiting their online communications and use of online social networking sites;

•Almost 70 per cent felt that it was acceptable for lawyers and judges to have each other as online contacts; while

•Over 93 per cent considered it unacceptable for lawyers and judges to post comments or opinions about other lawyers, judges, or parties involved in cases in progress.

Recently, a number of news reports have highlighted examples across the globe where the use of online social networking has affected the administration of justice and legal professionals. In the United Kingdom, jurors have been jailed for online social networking activity during trials, while in South Korea the Supreme Court refused to reappoint judges after posting controversial remarks on an online social networking site. In Cambodia, contentious comments on Twitter by a Khmer Rouge tribunal judge led to public debate as to whether they violate judicial ethics, and in the United States a lawyer was denied continuance of trial after the judge discovered, via Facebook, that the lawyer had not suffered a bereavement as stated, but had instead been partying – according to the information posted on the lawyer’s Facebook page. The impact of online social media networking sites is unprecedented.

In an interview with the IBA, Mark Stephens CBE, media law specialist and Vice-Chair of the IBA Art, Cultural Institutions and Heritage Law Committee, said that the publication of The Impact of Online Social Networking on the Legal Profession and Practice is the beginning of a ‘big conversation’ that needs to take place at the highest levels. In response to a question about the feasibility of international guidelines, given that ideas about freedom of information and media laws differ across jurisdictions, he responded: ‘We have to have the basic principles. The basic principles of openness and justice and fairness which apply to every legal system on the planet must apply in an online world. The question is how do we meet that challenge?’ His suggestion: ‘The senior judiciary in every single country is going to have to confront this. The bars and law societies are going to have to set the rules and constraints that work for their systems.’