Courts have had to restrict access to court buildings as a result of the COVID19 pandemic.  As a result, a virtual hearing has become a reality almost overnight.  It is, in fact, no longer a figment of anybody’s imagination but the answer to the current court access dilemma. Most courts, judges, attorneys, and advocates, however, do not know the tips and tricks involved with a virtual hearing.  For this reason, they are ill-prepared for this new digital era.

The first trick of a virtual hearing is to keep in mind that, as a matter of fact, it is merely a hearing that courts conduct online. The participants do not need to travel to court to attend the proceedings.  Their physical presence is not required. Under these circumstances, their presence is captured through some form of digital medium.

The second trick of a virtual trial is to remember a virtual hearing remains a hearing. Consequently, the usual rules of conduct and standards for in-person hearings still apply.

Another critical point is document tricks that you have to consider:

1.1     Tip 1:  Prepare your court documents in a virtual format

Like with in-person trials, the process of a virtual hearing commences with the preparation and exchange of formal court documents. With virtual proceedings, you do this electronically instead of following the customary way of exchanging hard copies. Bear in mind that courts often have set requirements on forms, signatures, and file sizes for papers, and you must still comply with these requirements.

You can use the DP Document Manager desktop application to ensure that you comply with these upload requirements. The app allows you to prepare your court documents in the format prescribed by your jurisdiction. You can, for example, easily remove passwords, merge pages, delete pages, or change document formats before you share the document with your opponent and the court.

1.2     Tip 2:  Upload the court documents to a digital trial portal

Another vital tip for digital trials is to share documents electronically in a manner accessible by all the parties. Participants often overlook file size restrictions and hardware capabilities.  The conventional method to deliver a hard copy of the papers at the physical address of all involved is not practical. For this reason, some courts use an electronic document filing portal for the upload of documents.

The practice of courts that allow you to forward the papers to an email address is not supported. It primarily burdens the workload of the judge or the court officials. They must then sort the court documents in a usable format themselves. A web-based portal, like CaseLines, is the best document sharing solution for courts.

1.2.1      CaseLines

CaseLines is web-based software explicitly designed for courts and the legal industry. It caters for the collection and presentation of court documents in a logical manner. You can use the DP Mail Extractor for CaseLines application to upload all your files and emails from Microsoft Outlook to your case on CaseLines.  To learn more on this aspect, read our article on how to improve your uploads to CaseLines.

The CaseLines software prepares the papers in a bundle format.  There are no file size restrictions. The bundle is indexed, paginated, bookmarked, and hyperlinked. These features of the court bundle make for easy navigation during the hearing. You can also restrict access to the court documents to specified parties:  the judge, the litigants, or an expert witness. The court and the litigants can further select to use the papers in their electronic format or to download and print a hard copy thereof.

1.3     Tip 3:  Determine the virtual hearing protocol

A further important aspect is to consider the virtual hearing protocol: a vital aspect of a virtual hearing. Most courts do not have a virtual hearing protocol in place, so you will have to write your own. The judge and the litigants will need to agree on this.

1.3.1      Factors to consider for a virtual hearing

The people involved with the case will need to consider the following factors:

  • The nature of the case.
  • The technology and equipment available to all the parties involved.
  • Are one or more of the litigants self-represented?
  • How will you accommodate the right of the public to have access to the hearing, if at all?
  • Appropriate measures to reduce the remaining disputes between the parties;
  • Possible time zone differences.
  • Do you need interpreters to overcome possible language barriers?
  • Additional court orders that may be necessary. These may include rulings on:
    • the way the parties and witnesses must be notified of the virtual hearing,
    • a prohibition against the recording and distribution of the virtual hearing record by anyone other than a court official,
    • what will constitute the official record of the proceeding,
    • the sequence of witnesses,
    • how to accommodate public access to the hearing, if at all: do you stream the virtual process to a video sharing service? If you do, how long will the footage remain open for viewing by the public?
    • how to ensure that a witness does not see or have access to the virtual hearing record before testifying;
  • Which video conferencing medium will you use as the platform for the virtual hearing?

1.3.2      Video conferencing software

Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype for Business are popular video conferencing software that may be suitable for your needs.

To decided which one to use, you will need to consider the following aspects:

  • The skill level required to operate the software;
  • The technology and equipment required by all the participants involved in the case: consider the possibility of telephone access for participants that do not have computers;
  • The number of people involved – this includes the judges, the registrar, the stenographer, the legal teams of all the parties, the parties themselves, witnesses, interpreters, members of the public;
  • Session and recording length restrictions – consider here also the size restriction to upload a recording to the video-sharing services;
  • Can you view and share the screen of the other parties?
  • Can you record the process?
  • Is it possible to restrict the access to, for instance, witnesses in a waiting room facility?
  • Can some participants have private conversations and conferences during the hearing?
  • How can the judge control the process?

1.4     Tip 4:  Download and check the video conferencing hearing medium

Make sure you know how to use the conferencing software before the digital trial commences, otherwise you will be embarrassed. It is good practice to test the system 48 hours before the trial to ensure that you can log in, your camera and microphone are working, and your internet speed is up to standard.

1.5     Tip 5:  Communicate the virtual hearing details

Another essential aspect to consider is communication. You will need to inform all the participants on how to use the video conferencing software, otherwise they cannot participate in the hearing. It may be appropriate to give them a quick guide on the steps to follow to access the trial or to share the link to the software support page. Also, share what to expect on the day of the hearing and the mode of conduct required from them. When you physically go to court, you know the dress code, to stand when the judge enters and leaves the courtroom, to put your cellphone on flight-mode during the hearing and the sequence of events.  People are not sure what to expect with a virtual process.

1.5.1      Communication aspects to consider for virtual hearings

Virtual trials require new aspects that need communication with all the parties involved.

  • The system requirements to attend the virtual conferences: you must have either a computer or a cellphone with a webcam.
  • You must have internet access with good speed.
  • Disable the standby/sleep mode of your computer or cellphone during the hearing.
  • Do not put your cellphone on “do not disturb.”
  • You must ensure your device remains active for the entirety of the hearing.
  • Activate the camera of your device.
  • Switch off your microphone until the judge/advocate/attorney addresses you.

1.6     Tip 6:  Maintain confidentiality protocols during the electronic procedure

Because you have to treat personal information as confidential, do not stream/share your secret notes on a screen that can be viewed by all the parties. Also, don’t share protected personal information like security numbers of individuals. If you operate in a jurisdiction that supports the CaseLines software, read their Best Practice Guide for Virtual Hearings for assistance on these aspects.

1.7     Tip 7:  Apply standard court protocols to the digital trial

Finally, the trick of a virtual hearing is not to get so caught up in the digital aspect thereof that you forget the hearing aspect. So, continue to follow standard court protocols for the duration of the trial, for example, swear in the witnesses, or warn them to appear at postponed hearings.

For a summary of  Tips and tricks preparing for a virtual hearing mentioned herein when you next attend a virtual hearing.