Social media is an opportunity to discuss law, endangered caribou and First Nations rights

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The world's first ever Twitter Moot will examine the impact of social media
Photo: The Next Web/Flickr

The Supreme Court of Canada's Chief Justice, Beverly McLachlan, raised many virtual eyebrows on January 31 when she expressed concern about the impacts of social media on Canada's justice system. Her worry is that people using social media as their main information source may be getting an inaccurate impression of the justice system.

Especially timely -- at least to West Coast Environmental Law -- was her question: "How can a medium such as Twitter inform the public accurately or adequately, in 140 characters or less, of the real gist of a complex constitutional decision?"

It is timely, because soon enough (at 10 a.m. PST/1 p.m. EST on February 21) we'll be answering that question -- through the world's first ever Twitter Moot. As lawyers and law students will know, a Moot Court is a staged legal appeal to allow us to practice our court skills -- "Basically, it's a make-believe court for lawyers and law students." A Twitter Moot, then, is a legal appeal argued entirely over Twitter. We've signed up law students from five different Canadian universities to argue a Twitter Moot concerning an endangered caribou herd impacted by coal mining, and on the resulting impacts on First Nations Treaty Rights.

Social media and the justice system

The Chief Justice is concerned that when people rely on social media as their primary source of information, they may come into contact with oversimplified, misleading, or just plain wrong accounts of the justice system and how it works. We don't necessarily disagree, although the point should be made that traditional media hasn't always been perfect in how they cover legal issues and portray the justice system. This is particularly true for public interest legal issues.

Judge McLachlan is entirely correct that the judiciary and the legal system must "evolve" to better understand social media. But that's not just because of the many challenges that social media poses to the justice system. It's also due to the opportunities that social media presents for the law and justice.

Increasingly more lawyers are participating in social media and are reaching broader audiences as a result. There are new and emerging opportunities to use social media to educate and engage the public on legal issues. This is particularly true for legal organizations, like West Coast Environmental Law, that want to encourage discussion about how the law and justice system intersects with social justice and environmental protection -- issues which are rarely covered in the mainstream media.

Example of an opportunity: The Twitter Moot

As Chief Justice Beverly McLachlan says, one "tweet" of 140 characters certainly can't capture the complexity of constitutional law. But what about a Twitter event lasting about an hour, with law students making their points clearly and succinctly? Perhaps that type of event will not only capture some of the legal complexity, but will also invite public discussion about Canada's justice system, environmental and Aboriginal law, and the impacts of development on endangered species.

Students across the country -- from the University of Victoria, UBC, York, Ottawa and Dalhousie -- are preparing to argue an appeal before the "Supreme Twitter Court of Canada." The appeal they are arguing is based on the precedent-setting BC Court of Appeal decision in West Moberly First Nations v. British Columbia: the court decision which saw permits granted to a coal mining company suspended because of the permits' impacts on an endangered caribou herd and on the rights of the West Moberly First Nations.

The panel of Supreme Twitter Court of Canada judges hearing the moot are:
- Award-winning lawyer-turned crime writer, William Deverell
- Lawyer, blogger, and social media expert, Omar HaRedeye
- Professor Kathleen Mahoney of the University of Calgary Faculty of Law

Left to conventional media, the threats to the caribou and the impacts on the West Moberly First Nations may seem remote. The legal issues the case raises, related to how to reconcile First Nations hunting rights with a government desire to promote mining opportunities, would be unintelligible and invisible to even educated members of the public. But in our Twitter Moot these issues will be fully visible to an international audience, most of whom have never heard of "mooting," the West Moberly First Nations, or the Burnt Pine Caribou Herd.

We believe that this is a good thing, that it's an opportunity for members of the public to better understand the law, the legal system, and how it relates to some of the important policy issues of our time.

As no one has ever held this type of event over Twitter before, we don't know how smoothly it will go, nor how the students and judges will use this unique opportunity. We thank the judges and students and our event sponsors (Gold & Silver sponsors to date are: the Law Foundation of British Columbia, our sustaining sponsor; Donovan and Company; Iler Campbell LLP; McCarthy Tetrault; Miller Thomson; Ng Ariss Fong; Saxe Law Office; Skunkworks Creative Group; and Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP) for having the confidence in us to participate in this unique and unprecedented event.

Join us -- whether you're on Twitter or not -- on February 21 to cheer for the five teams and to see how this social media opportunity comes together.

Visit www.wcel.org/twtmoot or follow @WCELaw on Twitter for more information. For readers on Twitter the hashtag for the event is: #twtmoot

Other opportunities

The World's First Twitter Moot isn't the only social media opportunity out there for the justice system. Lawyers, judges, and others within the justice system will need to continue to look for new and creative ways to use social media. The focus of those discussions must not be on how to protect the justice system from the challenges of social media; they should be on what opportunities social media offers, to make the justice system more transparent, discussed, understood, and ultimately more fair and just.

Andrew Gage is a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law and lead author of the organization's Environmental Law Alert blog. He works on climate change and in providing environmental legal aid to people in British Columbia. He will be a Twitter Moot Administrator.

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