The year 2020 has propelled us into the future, as we all try to become prepared for ‘the new normal’.
Around the world, ‘digital justice’ is the new buzzword and the Courts in Trinidad and Tobago are not to be left out.
Our courts are now sitting virtually and attorneys are also able to file documents for the first time online.
Here’s a quick overview of some of the changes have occurred since March 2020.
Social distancing has forced the closure of many public buildings, including physical courthouses.
On March 16, 2020, practice directions were given by the Judiciary of Trinidad and Tobago affecting court hearings, the filing of documents and the running of time.
VIRTUAL COURT HEARINGS
In order for justice to prevail, some hearings still had to go on, but virtually rather than physically.
These matters were deemed as ‘fit for hearing’ and have been able to proceed using technology to replace the physical courtroom.
Special rooms have even been outfitted at the maximum security prison for accused persons to attend court virtually and these arrangements may very well become permanent fixtures, even after things return to some level of normalcy.
It’s important to know that electronic can include teleconference, internet link, video link or any other manner of instant communication.
Now, the Judiciary of Trinidad and Tobago has selected Microsoft Teams as the preferred platform for these virtual hearings. Teams allows for audio and video conferencing with multiple participants and also the sharing of a screen to identify documents that may have been tendered into evidence.
There has even been an amendment to the oaths act, so now witnesses don’t need to take an oath on a Bible, Quran or Bhagavad Gita, but rather can swear using a prescribed wording. This now means that someone can give evidence from just about anywhere via videoconference, without the need to have one of the religious texts.
And of course, there must still be courtroom etiquette in the virtual world, such as they way participants are to be dressed and how to speak to the Court.
Lawyers would also have to ensure that the location they use for virtual court hearings are appropriate with sufficient lighting and minimal background noise.
Attorneys-at-law will also need to use a computer or mobile device that has a good camera and microphone, a processor that can handle videoconferencing and of course a good and stable internet connection.
E-FILING OF COURT DOCUMENTS
Another giant leap into the future has been with the electronic filing of documents.
Attorneys are now able to file documents online using the Judiciary’s e-filing portal. This eliminates the need, at least for the time being, to physically attend at the various court registries to file documents.
Documents must be in PDF format and this will of course cut down on the amount of paper that is generated for each matter. The court is still asking that a physical copy of the documents be available for inspection, if necessary and in some cases, physical documents may need to be served on the parties to a matter.
The e-filing platform is currently only available to registered and active attorneys-at-law.
The implementation of electronic filing will force lawyers and law staff to get up-to-speed with technology very quickly in the creation and scanning of documents, the use of electronic signatures where possible and dealing with voluminous annexures.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE
So while there are infinite possibilities for justice in the new normal, we’re just getting started. Both the courts and attorneys will need to ensure that the average man of the street does not get left behind as we embrace technology.
There may be persons with little access to equipment or who cannot afford an internet connection or data plan. Litigants in person will need to have the ability to file documents and the right balance will have to be found in ensuring there is a ‘public gallery’ for virtual hearings while preserving the security and dignity of the courtroom.
The new normal will create new opportunities for lawyers. Interesting times are ahead!