Virtual courtrooms: you be the judge

The plush Makhanda boardroom in an attorney’s office is packed with masked lawyers, a couple of over-sanitised journalists, and an anxious technical assistant directing the show.

With a tense grimace, the attorney snatches away a mouse from a senior counsel’s hand after he carelessly taps it, “unmuting” the boardroom and unwittingly exposing its idle chatter to everyone else gathering around the country to join the virtual courtroom.

The judge looms briefly on the big screen, which then divides into several screens showing counsel in their homes or chambers in Cape Town, Durban and elsewhere — hauling on their robes, quickly thrusting coffee mugs out of sight and adjusting their screens.

Shock registers on a few faces as they realise they are already “in the room”. A few more unknowns join the virtual courtroom fray.

Their cameras are off and no-one can see them. A child burbles in the background and an adult admonishes it. Somewhere a controlling hand mutes everyone.

The counsel about to argue is not au fait with the new technology and hauls his laptop closer, exposing the room to a close-up of flared nostrils, and a focused frown.

It does not feel like a courtroom at all.

But this is the new way of doing things.

Lawyers have had to abandon the courtroom in the face of a Covid-19 lockdown that has seen millions across the world take to video conferencing software such as Zoom, Webex, and Microsoft Teams as the new way of conducting business.

The judge cracks a joke about the one senior counsel sailing away into the sunset. He has somehow slipped sideways out of sight of his laptop camera, leaving  in view two lonely but beautiful model ships mounted on the wall of his home.

Another counsel appears to have resorted to his home basement to escape all possibility of domestic disturbances.

Behind him looms a giant copper-coloured geyser which — to the alcohol-starved — looks more like a delightful moonshine still filled with illicit delights.

All protocols observed, the case gets under way.

The judge loses control once or twice as the mute master tries to silence all but the counsel currently arguing. Visuals vanish, voices drone on.

The “in-the-moment” cut-and-thrust of argument that so many lawyers revel in is missing.

The pauses are too long, targeted sarcasm is lost in translation, and the excitement of a novel legal argument is muted — often by the unseen hand that controls the webinar.

Spectacles fog up, masks are surreptitiously lowered and irritation sets in.

The case draws to an end. Judgment is reserved.

The public is markedly absent from the action.

A courtroom is usually packed with clients, interested parties and rubbernecks keen to see news being made.

Some 100 years ago the then lord chief justice of England, Gordan Hewart, coined the phrase: “Justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”

This is the one vital element missing from an otherwise novel way for the legal system to get around the need to maintain social distancing.

It is one we need to find ways to address.

By Adrienne Carlisle – DispatchLIVE


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