High court judge breaks with tradition to allow lawyer to answer phone
The sudden trilling of a mobile phone amid the solemn atmosphere of a court hearing often leads to stern glances from the bench and cringing embarrassment by the offender.
But Mr Justice Holman, one of the longest-serving high court judges in England and Wales, responded to an electronic interruption from one lawyer’s device in the family court on Thursday with compassionate forbearance.
“Please answer it, don’t be embarrassed. Just answer,” said the 69-year-old, who has been a judge since 1995. “I never mind when mobiles go off … We live in the modern world and we like to keep our mobiles on. It may be somebody important.”
His generous tone does not indicate an official change in policy by Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service but it may be indicative of a more accommodating attitude towards technology.
A spokesman for the judiciary said: “There has been no change. Generally, mobile phone calls are not allowed in court but each judge has discretion as to what is allowed in their courtrooms.”
The Ministry of Justice is currently overseeing a £1bn video and computer investment that, it is hoped, will eventually replace the traditional mountains of paperwork and files that complicate so many legal challenges.
More than five years ago, the then lord chief justice, Lord Judge, issued clear guidance that journalists may tweet, text or email on their laptops or mobile phones in public hearings without asking for permission from each judge. Individual judges are entitled to withdraw that permission in any particular case. Sound recordings and photography remain banned.
“The use of an unobtrusive, handheld, silent piece of modern equipment for the purposes of simultaneous reporting of proceedings to the outside world as they unfold in court is generally unlikely to interfere with the proper administration of justice,” the guidance states.
His declaration has not prevented court clerks frequently starting proceedings with a preliminary order for all mobiles in court to be turned off before the judge enters.
The discreet and silent use of digital equipment in court has spread. Social etiquette towards inadvertent bleeps has generally become more forgiving. Two decades ago if a phone sounded in court, the culprit might be asked stand up and identify themselves.
Mr Justice Holman’s response is in contrast to interruptions in the middle of plays. The actor Richard Griffiths stopped and ordered a woman out of the theatre after her mobile rang for a third time in 2004. “Is that it, or will it be ringing some more?” he inquired. Kevin Spacey halted his performance at the Old Vic and told a member of the audience: “Tell them we’re busy.”
But nothing compares to the reaction of a New York judge who in 2005 stopped a domestic violence case in Niagara Falls City after proceedings were interrupted by 10 or 11 rings of a phone. “Everyone is going to jail, every single person is going to jail in this courtroom unless I get that instrument now,” he shouted. He ordered police officers to lock the court doors and search for the phone.