BLDC 2020

Today I had the opportunity to participate in the 2020 Boston Legal Design Challenge (#BLDC2020). It was the first year this competition was held online, and they were therefore able to include teams from outside of Boston proper.

Throughout the day we were invited to participate in exercises with our team members. Our team, the TRU Legal Architects was the only team from Canada. We were accompanied by a facilitator from Liberty Mutual Insurance in a zoom breakout room. Our facilitator led us through a collection of exercises where we collaborated through Mural.co in order to strategize and discuss what we were going to pitch to the judges.

At the end of the day, we competed against the 9 other teams and presented our idea to a panel of 3 judges. Ultimately we pitched the idea of an automated legal consultant who would provide assistance to small firms and sole practitioners looking to digitize their practice at little to no cost. We wanted to provide a resource that would help facilitate a seamless transition online for those who do not have the same resources available to them as would be found in a larger firm. We were thrilled to come in 3rd overall.

A lot of the presentations focused on access to justice and products that would help move the legal profession into the future. It was a very valuable experience and I think the people who participated will undoubtedly do great things for the profession in the future.

Court: A Click Away!

The “slow to change, uphold tradition” mindset has hampered the use and uptake of technology in the justice system. Pre-Covid, court participants had to go to a physical location, wait for the allotted time, then present themselves in their role. Videoconferencing and audio call-ins were underused, and the profession claimed not to have its strengths in IT.

Covid-19 changed how we see large gatherings of people and thus critically impacted the court system. Moving forward, there will be pressure to grow the online adjudication of uncomplicated civil and criminal matters. Zoom cases that have already been conducted should not be seen as temporary, but also, they should not be seen as permanent. The adjustments in the pandemic should be a stepping stone in developing a standard tool that will be utilized throughout the justice system.

I’m simply a law student who has never done a “real” trial, but there are some suggestions and procedures that may assist in setting the standards of virtual court. This is simply a discussion on how things may change and the benefit of those suggestions.

The Courtroom (or “Courtzoom”) 

Zoom and similar platforms have provided a service to many during the pandemic, having created a place to go when it could be anywhere but physical. In the near future, our virtual courtroom should be on its own platform with a custom interface that eases the process and maintains the decorum.

  • There could be a set position in gallery mode, where the Crown (or Plaintiff) and Defence (or Defendant) counsels’ video box would always appear. Which could be set by logging in as such. The judge would appear in a box at the top of the screen.
  • The room would be open 20 minutes before without the judge enters to allow for “tech testing” time (more on that later). This would also allow the judge to come in afterwards, which would provide an opportunity for counsel to bow and show respect.
  • The witness view box could be moved individually.
  • Judges and clerks would be given additional controls to mute other participants, record cases and create private breakout rooms.
  • There would be a forum portion or “hub” that would have court listings that would allow the public to enter as passive viewers.

These ideas only skim the surface of what could be implemented to better the courts. I think there should be a focus on creating a system that is easy to navigate, and allows for each participant to seamlessly go through the process, while conserving some of the dignity that surrounds the court.

The Participant Set-up

Due to the accessibility of the internet and technology, set-up could easily be satisfied by having a quiet space, internet connection and a laptop (or smartphone). Though far from ideal, it would allow for those with less funds to be able to contribute and participate. I find myself interested in the “access to justice” aspect of such a change. In one view, this would help those in rural areas without transportation get the opportunity to be “in” court. Another view may see this as increasing the divide between those that have and those that don’t. As with many things, there are positives and negatives. Much of the brainstorming of ideas in this post is about highlighting those benefits and finding ways to lighten the load of the downside.

  • The “courtzoom” should be accessible to smartphones to widen the scope of participation. It could use a one-time log in, to allow for people to feel safe borrowing tech to use for their hearing.
  • A link could be shared to family and friends that would easily allow them to join as passive viewers. Allowing for the support of having someone you care about in your corner.
  • For those without the means of technology, there should be public buildings with rooms set up for videoconferences. These could be found in places like libraries and universities and could be used on a reserve basis. Firms could be encouraged to bring their clients into their conference rooms, so they have the benefit of working technology. I know that this opens up a world of other issues, but to think that we are given the opportunity to bring the “court” and “justice” to those that are vulnerable is an opportunity we should jump on.

How do we help?

This question needs to be present for all those that put their mind to connecting technology and the court. Tech has the opportunity to be the support that so many need. Those outside the profession of law need to come first when visualizing what a new system could look like.

It’s about making steps in the right direction.

Counsel & Advocacy 

I believe a lot of lawyers will be able to adapt to the changes of virtual court and continue to serve their clients in whatever new medium may appear. It may take some time though.

This point of the conversation has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Due to the criminal moot that I’m competing in having moved to a virtual medium, I’ve begun to wonder how to advocate over my laptop. Below I’ve compiled some of my thoughts, using my current understanding of technology, advocacy lessons from the moot and Professor Jones’ class. To ground all my ideas in how practice is going now, the podcast “The Lawyers Lounge” has an episode on virtual hearings where the hosts helpfully explain their own experiences in online court.

I’m interested in how advocacy at the trial level will change and grow as things are added and removed from how we view virtual hearings. What can lawyers do to increase their presence in such a courtroom?

  • Multiple screens will be pivotal to managing the balance between the video boxes that are watching (passive), video boxes that are speaking and being spoken to (active) and the documents required to conduct the trial.
  • There should be an “eye-contact” screen that has the webcam attached with the video of the person you’re speaking to, and the documents required at the moment on the same screen.
  • Good lighting and mic quality are important as well. As advocates you’d want to present the best case as possible without having dark rooms or muffled voices distracting viewers.
  • A podium set-up may be ideal if the advocate is better on their feet.
  • A good knowledge of the platform being used, and a 20 min tech testing period before the trial begins will reduce tech stumbles that may slow the process.
  • It is possible that due to the distance often felt with virtual communication, it might be beneficial to be slightly (and I mean only a tad) more theatrical when presenting your case. It might keep those involved more “dialed in”, when it’s so easy to “tune out”.

These suggestions are simply the thoughts of a law student excited about how things may change. There will always be a need for a physical court as some issues require it, but to think about using technology to further your field and alter the profession has value. There is this opportunity to make a tough situation into a lasting change that will benefit all those involved.

If anyone has ideas to add or advocacy suggestions, I would enjoying reading them. Thanks!

Michael Noguera

Citations

Professor Craig Jones’ advocacy lessons helped how I though about what alterations may be successful.

Lisa Jorgensen & Danielle Robitaille. “Inside the Courtroom: Virtual trials and the Sharma decision”, (2020), online: The Lawyers Lounge Podcast <http:// www.emond.ca/the-lawyers-lounge-episode-archive>.