Remote court hearings – a tool for the justice system amid the pandemic

Remote court hearings – a tool for the justice system amid the pandemic

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, court hearings all over the world have been postponed. Yet, others are now taking place remotely. The Federal courts were the first to install courtroom technology according to the American Bar Association. UK Supreme Court as well as courts in Brazil, China, and India are conducted remotely. This technology is considered as a double-edged sword. Imagine an attorney attending a court hearing from an informal setting. Or a notification from an attorney’s husband appearing on the screen, asking her whether or not, they should meet for lunch.

Digital justice is challenging and sometimes unfair. Volunteers who monitor court hearings and take notes for transparency and accountability are now unable to do their jobs. In Miami and Los Angeles, these people don’t have access to online court hearings. On the other hand, volunteers are requested to show up at New York City’s Courthouse where the court hearing is broadcasted on a screen, a risk of contagion.

How will defendants speak to their clients with the privacy they need? Zoom, one of the technologies being used for court hearings, has security flaws. According to The Verge, the company claims that videos are end-to-end encrypted, while they are not. In fact, Zoom uses transport encryption called TLS. This means the connection between your phone or computer and Zoom’s server is encrypted. Anyone spying on your Wi-Fi won’t be able to watch and listen to your videos. And that is different from end-to-end encryption because the Zoom App itself can still watch your video conference.

People working in the Justice sector and obliged to shift to remote court hearings, are requested to adapt to new platforms they have never used before.

A court hearing taking place online can be a challenge for both defendants and prosecutors. Some may lack the ability to perform well in front of a camera – which may negatively influence how an individual is perceived. A remote court hearing can make it worse for criminal defendants and family members. “The whole process is inhumane,” said Dashawn Parks, who was waiting for his son’s bond hearing at the George Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago-USA, according to InjusticeWatch.

Postponing court hearings for people who are in prison means they will spend even more time there. This reflects the importance of a court hearing during these unusual times. Remote Court Worldwide has reported that the migration from physical to a digital is happening on five continents and in the most advanced jurisdictions. Technologies can speed up trials which would ensure more respect for legal deadlines for sentencing. In many countries, court sessions can last up to five years. This can have a negative impact on the attorney’s schedule and the case in general. A remote court hearing will be an opportunity for better time management. In physical courtroom circumstances, some lawyers have missed a court hearing and as such, prosecutors postponed the session for a time when the lawyer could be present, to stand with their client in front of the Judge. A virtual court hearing will save time as judges and lawyers will not be traveling to reach a courtroom.

Recording sessions can be used for archiving. Filmed court hearings can be a valuable opportunity for learning and exchanging ideas in the justice sector. For example, Judge Franc Caprio, the Internet Star as NECN describes him, has become a role model after his show, ‘Caught in Providence’ went viral. Judge Chhabria, who was interviewed by The Verge, said “Broadcasting court hearing has a very positive education function.”

Technological competence would be required from a judge or lawyer, sooner or later. But what about the issue of privacy? Hackers might have access to the Judge’s computer and modify/add or delete documents. Also, some judges are receiving files via their personal emails. Taking Gmail as an example, how to prevent forward, copy, print, or the downloading of an email? Who can know for sure, if all judges and attorneys’ emails are supported by Encryption with (TLS) Transport Layer Security?

Courts have to upgrade to a dedicated software. Many developers have designed software in order to respond to that need. CourtFileNow provides access to all cases, history, judgements. It can be customized for each country and each court. Judges can approve a proposed order submitted by the attorney or quickly file an order. This digital workplace will enhance communications between parties, it can save money and make the judicial process more accurate and efficient.

HM Courts and Tribunal Services has deployed the ‘Kinly Cloud Video platform’. New emergency legislation, Coronavirus Act 2020 passed in March, allows the use of this platform in criminal court hearings but not for jury trials. However, defendants won’t be able to attend the court hearing from their home. Sentencing will not take place unless the defendant is either in custody or physically present in the courtroom.