In an era of cellphone cameras and social media, it’s clear that allowing mobile devices in the courtroom is fraught with issues: everything from disruptive distractions where individuals actually answer calls while in court, to more serious concerns like witness intimidation due to stealthily snapped photos released on social media.
But after a period of time where cellphones were banned in most courtrooms in the Boston area, a new report from the court-appointed Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission says ‘hold the phone’, suggesting that the courts’ hang-up with handhelds has led to an array of legal hardships, particularly to self-represented litigants.
“The burden of this policy really falls to those who can’t afford to hire an attorney,” says Deborah Silva, executive director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law & Justice in Boston.
What happens when people are prohibited from possessing their cellphones in court? There are those who are unable to share a photograph or a text as evidence, or to search their calendars for dates in question. In one instance, a man wasn’t able to understand what was being said in the court as he didn’t have access to the translation app on his phone.
Child-care arrangements and shuttle rides home come into play in cases that are running late.
Sometimes, the courts in question don’t offer any storage options, leaving people scrambling to find somewhere to safely store their mobile devices.
The Commission proposes phasing out the ban, in exchange for some alternative security measures and test programs. One of these would see magnetically sealed cellphone pouches; another would include a procedure that would help allow self-represented litigants to use their devices as necessary.
The bottom line is to find a balance between access to justice, as well as safety and security.