Justice in the Rear-View Mirror

When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.[1]

Covid-19 has forced the Courts to adopt new ways of working in the lock-down environment.

Before the advent of Covid-19 the Court system in New Zealand operated as it has for decades – a paper-based system based on the courthouse as a physical meeting place, bringing together large numbers of people in a central location. It may be described as the “in person” or “physical presence” model with the “Courthouse as a Place”. The Courthouse has been symbolic of justice delivery, often an imposing temple-like structure with solid emblems representing the majesty of the law and the delivery of just outcomes and firm retribution for the wicked.

The threat posed by Covid-19 to public safety and to the community at large along with a lock-down preventing movement and gatherings has challenged that model. It has required change and that change has had to be implemented quickly so that essential justice services might still be delivered.

In some respects the “Courthouse as a Place” model still prevails. Courtrooms throughout the country have the ability to hear cases remotely using Virtual Meeting Room technology – a significant movement forward from the earlier use of Audio-Visual links (AVL) that have been in place for some years. 220 virtual meeting rooms have been set up across 267 court locations and these are being increased. More collaboration tools are anticipated and the number of virtual private network connections to the Court system have increased from 500 to over 2000.

In addition a form of electronic filing of court papers has been implemented although this is by no means a full-featured e-filing regime.

For a number of reasons it is not possible to conduct a full scale judge alone criminal trial remotely without the consent of the defendant, although under the present law it is possible to conduct a civil hearing using remote technology.

Nevertheless, the speed with which the Ministry and the Judiciary have moved to put these systems in place is admirable. It shows what can be done to implement new communications technologies within the justice system. Although what has been provided is by no means perfect, nor is it as wide ranging as those of us who favour greater use of technology in the justice system would like, it is a start – a proof of concept forced on us by necessity. It is something upon which the Court system could and should build to make justice more available and accessible in the future.

Before Covid-19 forced changes upon the system, there was no disaster plan for the circumstances that have been presented. The Spanish influenza epidemic of the early 20th century could provide no answers to the problems facing the Courts. There was, in fact, no Plan B. But Plan B – or at least the beginnings of it – are now in place.

The problem is that these innovations, developed as they have been to meet the challenges of delivering justice in a lockdown, are seen as temporary. At the end of the Covid-19 emergency  we in New Zealand will return to “physical presence” model conducted in courthouses throughout the country. It is argued that courthouses serve an important role as the local face of justice for communities.

The suggestion is that the use of technology is not how justice should be delivered in New Zealand. At the moment the problem is that the use of technology has been forced upon us, like it or not, and the solutions arising should not be discarded as no longer fit for purpose or a temporary emergency expedient.

In the overall scheme of things the issue of remote access and videoconferencing is a small part of a much bigger picture that involves the digitization of the Court record. There are already solutions available for this such as that offered by Caselines and about which I was talking back in 2013!

But remote access and digital presence have been dismissed based on the perception that a digital Court system does not – cannot – replicate the level of public and community engagement in the processes of justice and it can’t really replicate the public understanding that flows from a Court house based system for justice. The current use of digital technology has been forced upon the Courts – a stopgap measure; a temporary expedient.

The view is that the “in person” model involving a face to face exchange involving the Judge, counsel and the defendant is important, along with the presence of the Court as a place where the community comes together to provide support for victims and for defendants. It is argued that it is by way of those opportunities for early interventions which can prevent re-offending and subsequent re-engagement with the criminal justice system. I gather that this approach is based on research done by a Professor Ian Lambie and to which Chief Justice referred in her paper to the Criminal Bar Association Conference in 2019.

The concern is that there seems to be an overuse of AVL which is considered lacking in the richness of the information that can be passed between people in a face to face situation. There is unhappiness with the increased use of AVL that the Covid 19 crisis has made necessary but it is recognized it a necessity.

In many respects I consider that the these views about AVL and remote hearings, informed in part by the view of Professor Lambie, are as much cultural as anything else. The majority of the judiciary, myself included, have grown up with the “in presence” model. It is what we are used to. The reality is that more and more people are becoming used to getting their information remotely and are able to make the necessary adjustments in their cognitive and reactive thinking. The human race is known for its ability to adapt and lawyers and judges must be part of this adaptation.

So where does this leave us? There are a number of realities that we have to face. The first is that whether we like it or not we are in the middle of a revolutionary process – and not a political revolution but a revolution that will affect our entire society. We simply will not return to the world as it was in December 2019. All will change – change utterly.

We have to recognize that the post-Covid-19 world will be a different one from that to which we are used. And the realities of the revolution will not become apparent for some considerable time. My own view is that there will be social disruption and dislocation that will continue until at least the end of 2021. Around about then we may see some form of stability – I do not use the word “normalcy” because that suggests a return. There will be no return.

As a result of the circumstances that have been forced upon us we have had to adapt to new methods of communication and information exchange. A whole older generation a few weeks ago thought an email was the cutting edge of technology. Within a very short period of time they have discovered that video calling their friends and family is not some black art for which they need a computer technician.

If there are lawyers and Judges who have made that discovery, they will then likely make the mental jump and ask why on earth the same thing cannot be usefully done in a court. Digital systems and remote hearings may not be the way for all cases but they can be used for many and may provide a more effective, relevant, accessible, versatile justice system than we had before.

Although I know that some of the arguments in favour of the “in person” “Courthouse as a Place” model are based upon elements of the Rule of Law and the importance of full engagement and the symbolic trappings surrounding the administration of Justice, the changes that have been forced upon us demonstrate the fragility and brittleness of those arguments and indeed of the system itself.

But to say that it will be “business as usual” once things settle down, to suggest a full return to the clumsy, archaic, rear view system that has been so much a part of the past ignores the fact that there are effective technological system for the delivery of justice services.

Covid 19 and the lockdown forced the Courts to scramble for solutions to important services that they provide. Why? Because there was no Plan B. The Covid 19 crisis demonstrated that it was unacceptable to argue that “this is the only way because it is the way that we have done it.”

What the Covid 19 crisis has done is forced us to recognize that we must have alternatives. There will be other crises in the future that will require us to move fast and break things. We should always have a Plan B and one that can be deployed seamlessly and easily to whatever threats arise. Remote hearings and greater use of technology form part of that Plan B, have been deployed and can be improved and developed further.

The ball of opportunity has been placed before us. It may be, if we pick it up, there may be a few stumbles and a few drops. Better that than never to have picked up the ball at all.


[1] McLuhan, M. and Q. Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Co-ordinated by J. Agel. (1967). New York, London, Toronto: Bantam Books. pp 74 – 75.

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