To understand virtual court proceedings and their use during the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Bergen (Norway) Professor Dr. Anne Sanders surveyed active and former members of the Council of Europe’s Consultative Council of European Judges (CCJE) from more than twenty different countries. The findings of the survey are presented by Dr. Sanders in her article “Video-Hearings in Europe Before, During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic.” It ultimately reveals that judges “consider remote hearings necessary during the pandemic but not preferable to face-to-face hearings.” In support of this opinion, judges list the following drawbacks of virtual hearings: 

  • Technical concerns like connectivity issues and a lack of access to technical equipment by the parties involved in cases.
  • Less tangible problems like judges having diminished control over nonverbal communication between parties and witnesses.
  • The fact that courtrooms provide a location for justice and its seriousness that cannot be replicated by video-hearings at present.
  • Lack of public/media access to proceedings for transparency. And while some judges are open to streaming their video-hearings online to promote this value, others are worried that cases could then be recorded. This would constitute a violation of personal liberties and fair trial rights.

While the survey revealed a desire among judges to return to face-to-face methods, there were several positive experiences as well:

  • Some judges reported that the video-hearings give justice a “humane and timely face”. 
  • Other judges reported that video-hearings will be preferable to in-person hearings when the technical issues can be ironed out. This was, however, only a minority of respondents. 

While Dr. Sanders sees a future where video-hearings are less technically problematic, it remains unclear from the survey if video-hearings will ever be able to replicate the benefits of in-person methods like transparency and seriousness. So, if video-hearings will ever be popular with judges, they may require fundamental changes beyond technical patchwork. Before these deeper problems can be resolved, fully remote hearings are likely to be used for “uncontested applications, interlocutory matters and case management rather than the hearing of witnesses and jury trials.” 

Signed by Anthony Ramazani, Millennium Partners intern

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