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I am not a cat

The courts acquiesce to digital hearings in the face of a Pandemic.

The legal field, as with many fields, has changed dramatically since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Gone are the days of attending court in traditional black barrister gowns and waistcoats, waiting patiently for the Registrar to call your case number, taking hand-written endorsements and orders provided by Masters and Judges to court filing and waiting in line to physically file your materials with court staff. Prior to March of 2020, this was the standard order of operations, and it seemed like the courts had little interest, save for exceptional circumstances, in utilizing technology to better serve the needs of lawyers and their clients.

Prior to COVID, there were limited options for filing court materials online, and the courts would only allow video conferencing in rare situations. In March of 2020, the country was locked down and the Federal Government urged the population to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus. The already back-logged courts realized quickly that they would need to make sweeping changes to allow the people to maintain their access to justice.

As a result, lawyers were deemed “essential workers”, and Regulations were put forward to facilitate the transition into technologies that would allow for remote hearings, remote notarization and commissioning, and alternatives for service and filing of key documents. Within a matter of weeks of COVID lockdowns, these sweeping regulations allowed for a lawyer who was previously chained to their desk and the courts, to operate their law offices and attend hearings from their home kitchens, bedrooms, home offices, and backyards.

Of course, this transition to virtual hearings did not come without hiccups. Connection issues, background noises, poor sound quality and less transparency were some of the issues present at the onset of virtual hearings. These issues still arise occasionally, but as the pandemic endured over many months, even the most technologically inept have eventually learned how to hop onto a zoom call.

Though, as a Texan lawyer learned the hard way at a virtual hearing:

“I am prepared to go forward with it” the Texan lawyer submits. “I am not a cat.” he assures the court, as his video feed shows an anthropomorphised cat face blinking, and mouthing the words that he speaks.
“If a child used your computer before you join a virtual hearing, check the Zoom video options to be sure filters are off.” “This kitten just made a formal announcement on a case in the 394th.” the Texas 394th District Judge concludes.

But for the technologically savvy lawyer, these changes have increased efficiency and dramatically cut down on expenses and travel time. Just last month, in one morning, I was able to virtually attend the Brampton Criminal courts to adjourn a matter for a colleague who was unwell, while simultaneously on zoom on my phone conducting an Examination Under Oath for a matter civil proceeding in Toronto. Previously these both required physical attendance, in person, in different cities. I may have had to bephysically present at the Brampton courts all day until my matter was called, only to request adjournment of the matter- which only took about 10 minutes.

However; in the absence of imposing court buildings, mountainous physical paperwork, and traditional legal garb, the court still expects all participants to conduct themselves for remote hearings as if they were physically in the courtroom. This means while you may be able to get away with not wearing pants under the table, be sure whatever is showing on camera is appropriate.

Further to this, here are some more tips for virtual hearings:
– Due to the connection via the internet, there may be some audio delay present so be sure to allow each person to finish speaking fully before you start speaking. Try to make sure only one person is speaking at a time.
– Yes, you can login from anywhere, bedroom, kitchen, lakeside, etc- but make sure it is a quiet and private space.
– Do not record the hearing unless you are given express permission by the courts.
– Mute your microphone when not speaking. This will cut down on background noise and possible echoing.
– Double check your listed name before joining the call, and be sure that you turn off the cat face Zoom filter!

Ontariocourts.ca has provided a detailed list of recommendations for those attending virtual hearings, check them out in full here: https://www.ontariocourts.ca/ocj/covid-19/remote-hearing-guides/guidelines-re-remote-hearings-in-the-ontario-court-of-justice/

As COVID-19 vaccinations roll out in large numbers, and the country begins to open up again, the courts will be forced to reexamine our new-found reliance on technology and decide if it is worth going back to the pre-covid, in person hearings. It is my hope that the legal field will keep virtual hearings and continue to adopt new technologies to allow for more efficient legal practice, reduced litigation costs to clients and an increased access to justice for all.

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