It’s a massive challenge for every sector to find ways to deal with the limits imposed by the current COVID-19 crisis. The legal sphere is no exception.
In recent months, there have been many creative initiatives all around the world to keep the courts running. the tricky part: respecting safety regulations such as obligatory masks and social distance.
Desperate times call for creative measures
One way of dealing with the current situation is postponing trials and keeping a tight regimen about the amount of people allowed in the courts. Such measures have been implemented in pretty much every country hit by a significant COVID-19 outbreak.
Another way of conducting trials has been the use of so-called virtual meeting platforms, such as Zoom and Skype.
These virtual trials, popularly called zoom-trials, have been tried in the United States, and many other countries such as England and Belgium.
Creative measures hold new challenges
This new way of conducting trials brings many new challenges to the legal professionals involved.
Lawyers have already complained publicly about the absence of face-to-face interaction in their zoom-trials. Even though the application of law always has a precise and objective aspect, they claim the subjective aspect of “feeling” also plays a significant role.
Judges or juries often base their decisions on how they feel about a certain defendant or party in a specific case. Body language, for example, plays a huge role in judging a defendant’s honesty or the demeanor of a witness. Lawyers and other legal professionals worry that this dimension of legal decision making will be eroded with the usage of virtual communication technologies.
A zoom-trial also eliminates the ability to present physical copies of exhibits or evidence to a judge, jury or witness. Can you simply interchange hard copies with PDF’s? One might consider that this poses many risks, not in the least forgery of evidence.
Effectively “uploading” trials into the digital sphere also increases the risks of someone hacking into classified or personal information about certain cases. This might, in turn, lead to infringements of privacy and compromised participants.
Next to the aforementioned concerns and possible technological difficulties, there might be some upsides to virtual trials too. For example, unlike in a typical courtroom, virtual trials could allow the judge to review the effect of a certain statement on all “present” parties in the trial.
Where do we go from here?
One thing thats for sure is that trials need to take place, regardless of the current global pandemic. Zoom-trials, although bringing many complications with them, might be the best temporary solution we have.
To further implement this new technology in the courtroom we need a regulatory framework that protects the rights of everyone involved and guarantees the fairest trial possible. For this, protocols specific to each individual court will not suffice. Every state looking to implement virtual zoom-trials will have to create a legislative framework to ensure smooth and fair trials.