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The New Norm- Virtual Courtrooms

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By Neela Ramsundar

 

IN a previous article, based on the current rules at the time, I wrote that the courts were gearing up to resume physical hearings from June 15, 2020.

Then in a grand turn of events, the Chief Justice Ivor Archie introduced another drastic set of rules on June 14, 2020 to deal with court operations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

For those who wish to check it out, it’s the Practice Direction on Court Operations Covid-19 Pandemic Directions No. 4 (with effect from June 16, 2020) found in Volume 59 of the Trinidad and Tobago Gazette No 100 of 2020 (available online).

What’s changed? Completely shifting the way law is practiced and administered, virtual courtrooms are now the new norm. Practically every type of hearing is to be conducted by electronic means. Only in cases where the interest of justice is compromised by an electronic hearing, should it be conducted in person.

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These types of hearings include case management conferences, directions and status hearings, pre-trial review hearings and can even include trials, once the interest of justice will not be compromised by a trial by electronic means.

You may ask: What exactly is a hearing by electronic means? Basically, it’s a hearing done by way of a video conference.

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The Chief Justice has chosen the Microsoft Teams platform to facilitate these electronic hearings. It’s a similar concept to that recent WhatsApp feature which allows multiple persons to interact by video chat, all at the same time.

During these electronic hearings, the judge remains in his or her office and so would the Attorneys for each party. Clients would attend the office of their lawyer for the hearing, not a courtroom. At the assigned time, (or when the judge is ready) all the parties and the Judge appear simultaneously on the computer screen.

Formalities such as standing and bowing when the judge enters the courtroom have been dispensed with. The parties remain sitting at all times.

How long are these virtual hearings going to last? Well, the Chief Justice made it clear in his Practice Direction that virtual hearings will go on until he stated otherwise.

These virtual hearings now go hand in hand with the electronic filing of court documents using the judiciary’s e-filing platform https://eservices.ttlawcourts.org/filing.

However, this particular platform is only available to attorney. If you are a litigant in person (i.e. you represent yourself) electronic filing kiosks are available at the Hall of Justice, the Supreme Courts at San Fernando and Tobago, the Children Court and the Family Court.

In practice, the electronic hearings at times experience glitches in the form of bad video and audio.  Similar to being in a physical court, there are often significant waiting times for your case to be called. There probably isn’t much that may be done about the latter especially with everyone still getting acquainted with this new style of hearings. The video and audio issues, on the other hand, may simply be teething problems to be ironed out with time.

All in all, the wheels of justice have started to turn once more in regular fashion, albeit I daresay it’s a bit slower.

Copyright © 2020 Neela Ramsundar, LL.B (HONS), L.E.C Civil Litigation Attorney at Law & Certified Mediator.

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general informative purposes only. It does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. For legal advice on your specific situation, please contact an Attorney-at-Law of your choosing directly. Liability for any loss or damage of any kind whatsoever allegedly incurred a consequence of using content in this article is thus hereby excluded to the fullest extent permitted by law.

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