In Case Relating to Internet, Be Sure to Explain to Judge What an “Internet” Is

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"Keep it simple" is a principle that lawyers tend to forget, sometimes permanently, but a case in Britain shows why you should never assume that a judge or anyone else is fully up to speed on your case.  This case also happens to involve terrorism charges — the three defendants are charged with conspiracy to violate Britain’s Terrorism Act through crimes including murder, so it is a relatively serious matter.

Note to Britain: if you want people to really support your laws, you need to start coming up with some better names for them.  Try some snappy acronyms like "PATRIOT Act," or "RICO," or maybe name the law after an innocent victim (preferably a child).  Just calling it "Terrorism Act" is a real snore.

Anyway, these particular defendants are being prosecuted under the "Terrorism Act" in part for inciting terrorism via the Internet.  It is probably therefore important that your judge understand what an "Internet" is.  But during argument yesterday, Judge Peter Openshaw had to interrupt the prosecutor while he was questioning a witness about a website forum allegedly used by Islamist radicals, to point out that he did not know what "websites" or "forums" are.

"The trouble is I don’t understand the language," Judge Openshaw explained.  "I don’t really understand what a Web site is."  An exchange then took place in which the prosecutor attempted to explain the terms he was using (apparently instead of having an actual witness do it), but the judge was still fairly bewildered.  "I haven’t quite grasped the concepts," he admitted.  Noting that Thursday’s hearing was to include testimony by a computer expert, the judge added, "Will you ask him to keep it simple?  We’ve got to start from basics."

Judge Openshaw is only 59, so he doesn’t have quite the same excuse that, say, Senator Ted Stevens (83) had when he described the Internet publicly as "a series of tubes."  That is actually not a terrible description, given what he was addressing, but the phrase "series of tubes" — coupled with the fact that Stevens probably really did not know what he was talking about — took on a life of its own.  It now has a dedicated Wikipedia page, where you can find an mp3 of the speech as well as a link to the music video, "A Series of Tubes," the techno dance remix.

Whether Judge Openshaw’s lack of understanding, if it continues after today’s testimony, will be positive or negative for the defendants remains to be seen.  But it does provide a pretty good lesson in why not to assume a judge fully understands your issue.  And the middle of your direct examination is probably not the time that you want to be learning that lesson.

Link: Reuters via Yahoo! News