This is a guest post by Jenny Kitzinger, Professor at Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and Celia Kitzinger, Professor in Sociology, University of York, co-founders of the Coma and Disorders of Consciousness Research Centre @CDOCuk

We live-tweeted from a Court of Protection hearing – Briggs v Briggs & Ors [2016] EWCOP 53 – a case brought (successfully) by Lindsey Briggs to stop doctors administering life-prolonging treatment to her severely brain injured husband, Paul Briggs.

This landmark case raised fundamental ethical issues of ‘sanctity of life’ vs ‘self-determination’, and the weight to be given to a person’s own wishes in best interests decisions about them (see our analysis of the judgment here).  We wanted to use live-tweeting to open up debate about these issues and to show – in real time – how the medico-legal arguments played out in court over the four day hearing. We tweeted partly from our personal accounts, but mainly from @CDoCUK (the Coma and Disorders of Consciousness Research Centre account).

You can get a good impression of what we tweeted, and others’ engagement with us, by searching Twitter using #COPBriggs and from the storify we compiled of a selection of the tweets (click here).

Although some journalists have become well-known for live-tweeting from high-profile criminal cases (e.g. ‪@peterjukes from the phone hacking trial, @CarlGardner from the Stephen Lawrence trial), we believe we are the first academics ever to live-tweet from the Court of Protection, and the first to cover life-and-death treatment-withdrawal proceedings. Responses on Twitter were enthusiastic:

@HealthLawQUT Novel application of #openjustice. Making court proceedings public in #COPBriggs through twitter ‪@CDOCuk

@IMPublicLaw Not so secret, not so shadowy: follow @CDOCuk 4 live tweets.

@MarkNeary1 Phenomenal that Justice Charles has allowed live tweeting from a CoP, DoLs case

How did we get permission?

Journalists have been entitled to tweet from court for the past five years and can do so without asking the permission of the judge but, as academics, we had to ask permission. The practice direction suggests “communicating a request to the judge through court staff”, so we prepared a letter (available here) which we gave to the clerk on the day, asking for it to be passed to the judge before he entered the courtroom. We heard back almost immediately that consent had been granted (with no strings attached): in court, the judge referred to the fact that we would be tweeting and specifically banned others (except journalists) from doing so without his permission.

What and how did we tweet?

We were already fairly experienced Twitter-users (@kitzingercelia and @jennykitzinger) with – for academics – moderately large follower bases from across academic social science, health and social care, law, disability rights, patient/family activists and campaign groups. Our tweets were designed primarily for that audience.

We tweeted from court mainly using our research centre handle @CDOCuk.  Initially our tweets were purely factual.  We reported on the barristers’ position statements, cross-examination of witnesses, and interjections by the judge (always trying to indicate who was speaking).

As our confidence grew, we began to add text images containing background information, case law or our own research findings as they related to the proceedings. We also occasionally tweeted our own views or assessments, and sometimes interacted with questions/comments from followers, as here.

Concentrating on the proceedings while simultaneously extracting key issues, and conveying them in 140 characters is very demanding. At a practical level, having a laptop as well as a phone was enormously useful (wi-fi required a personal hot spot). It was also important to have readily-available electronic copies of key documents we anticipated would be relevant (e.g. the Mental Capacity Act, the Aintree judgment), enabling us to refer to them quickly and copy and paste extracts as needed.

It helped that we had attended cases before and were familiar with the language, roles and procedures of the court.  Additionally, we understood a good deal about this particular case.  We’d known Lindsey Briggs for about a year, had supported her in bringing the case, and had prior access to many of the documents in the court bundle.

It was also invaluable that there were two of us. We took it in turns to tweet from the @CDOCuk handle, with the other able to provide commentary using RT from her personal account. We also worked together to incorporate urls into tweets or to create jpegs with background information – plus we sometimes used each other to check the accuracy/advisability of particular tweets.

Live-Tweeting and Open Justice

The immediacy of the live-tweeting, and the way arguments in the court unfolded over time, generated extensive on-line engagement with some of the core principles discussed: sanctity of life, autonomy, and best interests.  This also carried over to the off-line world – followers told us that they were meeting with colleagues in coffee and lunch breaks throughout the four days of the hearing to discuss the latest tweets.

The storify has had a longer shelf-life.  It’s been spontaneously picked up as a resource for continuing professional development, in fields ranging from philosophy to healthcare.  We have also learnt that both families and health care professionals due to give evidence in subsequent Court of Protection cases have used our storify to help them understand the sorts of questions they may be asked and how the answers are used.

It was a steep learning curve for us, and a full-on time commitment – and we were nervous about getting it ‘right’.  The result wasn’t perfect, but we are certainly glad we did it and hope it contributed to challenging the view of the Court of Protection as  ‘the secret court” and to widening a crucial debate about best interests and end-of-life decision-making.

Feature pic : secret by Steve Rotman on Flickr (creative commons licence – thanks!)