Over the last few months, many have praised New Zealand's rapid response to the coronavirus pandemic and, in particular, the actions of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. But what impact did the strict measures imposed in New Zealand have on the court system?
In the third of our series of interviews with lawyers from across the world, I asked commercial litigator, Emma Peart of Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, to discuss court life in New Zealand during and, now, after lockdown.
It was interesting to hear about parties electing to have a virtual hearing even though restrictions have been lifted (which may well be the shape of things to come in Scotland) – and her tips for appearing in a virtual court really resonated with me - there is no such thing as too many screens!
What is your experience of virtual court rooms in your jurisdiction since the outbreak of COVID-19?
My colleagues have experienced both audio-only and audio-visual contested hearings and case management conferences during lockdown. The courts used their own virtual meeting room conferencing system.
In our experience, because the technology relied on individual people’s technical arrangements and internet connections, it increased the likelihood of glitches. Participants experienced reasonably significant technology issues with the audio-visual links, with instances of people not being able to join properly, being ‘kicked off’ the link, as well as screens freezing and delays.
Issues like this made responding to questions from the judge difficult. In particular, the less-formal case management conference, where participants were addressing individual issues on a back-and-forth basis was harder to manage without the visual cue of counsel standing when addressing the court.
While the technology was not an issue for audio-only hearings, it was noticeably less effective than an in-person hearing as all non-visual communication was lost.
Our team also held a large mediation via audio-visual link during lockdown with all the parties joining via Zoom and counsel communicating offline through their mobile phones. This generally worked well, with some technology teething issues. However, it was noticeably more tiring than an in-person mediation.
Do you think this is going to result in a permanent change for the way your court system works in the future?
New Zealand already utilised teleconferences and connecting witnesses or counsel via audio-visual link in some circumstances (for example, where a witness or counsel is in a different location).
While we expect courts and counsel will continue to prefer in person appearances, we believe that this will result in an increase in the readiness to hold teleconferences and to connect geographically diverse participants via audio-visual link. For example, we have an upcoming conference where counsel have been content to run it as a teleconference rather than in-person, despite the involvement of a large number of parties.
Do you have any top tips for our solicitors or solicitor advocates appearing in a virtual court?
- Try to not to move or fidget when you are on screen, it is more distracting than it would be in a courtroom.
- Become good friends with your mute button – use it when you’re not speaking, and turn it off when you are!
- Speak more slowly than you would normally in court and remember your non-verbal cues will not work in the same way so it may be necessary to specifically address the person you are speaking to.
- If you are presenting your screen, turn off email and other notifications so other participants cannot see them.
- The more devices and screens you can have, the better. At the very least, try to have a separate screen for your working documents.