As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, courts around the world began closing their doors, only to open new modes of communication online and over the telephone. Technology became an operational lifeline. The virus has unearthed the potential of underutilized tools long resisted by judges and court administrative staff. “Remote court” — from telephonic hearings to video proceedings (via Zoom or Skype, for example) — was adopted at head turning speed.
Is law’s present its future? The contours of the after-Corona industry have yet to be shaped, but there is little doubt COVID-19’s legacy will survive its cure. To borrow from T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi, the legal establishment is “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” –it has witnessed the birth of new ways of doing things and the death of the old order. The iron grip law’s entrenched stakeholders have long held on the industry has been released. The question is which elements of “old law” and legal culture will remain, not whether things will return to the before-Corona order.
Mark A. Cohen, COVID-19 and the Reformation of Legal Culture, FORBES.COM (Apr. 14, 2020). Legal futurologists like Professor Richard Susskind are at the forefront of using remote work technology to help keep courts around the world operating in the teeth of the pandemic. Susskind operates www.remotecourts.org, a website dedicated to sharing international courts’ experiences with remote alternatives to traditional court hearings. For example:
- The UK Supreme Court is conducting hearings via video conferencing and livestreaming proceedings on its website, www.supremecourt.uk;
- Emergency legislation has made remote hearings the default option for Hungarian courts, meaning that nearly two hundred Hungarian courtrooms now operate via video conferencing;
- Ugandan courts now use video links for criminal proceedings; any outstanding judgments and rulings will be issued via email going forward; and
- While all Dutch courts have been closed since March 17, urgent cases concerning custody of criminal suspects, medical care over persons, and urgent family law cases will be heard over Skype until at least April 28.
The challenges facing international courts today, from litigation and arbitration to appellate proceedings, are unprecedented. Only time will tell if the measures these courts have so quickly adopted are short-term solutions or long-term alternatives. Stewart Salwin of The Global Legal Post, writes:
The fact that a large segment of the courts have adapted so quickly to the changes imposed in response to the new coronavirus should be commended. It’s a testament to the resilience of the legal profession, despite the common perception that lawyers are slow to respond to change.
The forced telecommuting that we are now experiencing, therefore, seems to represent an actual increase in efficiency. Whereas an in-person attendance on average might take three hours of my time, a telephonic appearance that performs the same function may now only take me 30 minutes or less.
Ultimately, when the Covid-19 crisis has been resolved and things in the court system go back to business-as-usual, it may be interesting to see whether the courts and practitioners will see any long-term potential to some of the emergency procedures being implemented now.
After getting a taste for more expansive telecommuting, the legal system might be loath to abandon some of the efficiency of the new methods, once the crisis that precipitated them has passed.
Stewart Salwin, Unprecedented Response to COVID-19 is “Testament to Legal Profession’s Resilience,” The Global Legal Post (Mar. 27, 2020).