Stuart McMillan

On #LegallyThinking: What Can The Rise Of Online Courts Teach Us About Future-Proofing Our Organizations?

The other day, I was sat at my desk about to log on for the day’s work. My flatmate was about to do the same. ‘This is the dystopian future they warned us about,’ I said. Jokes aside, there is no denying it: Coronavirus and ‘Working From Home’ has made netizens of us all.

But despite the breakthrough of videoconferencing, the healthier lifestyle we are all leading thanks to the absence of a stressful commute and harmful pollution, and a new abundance of personal time, traditional ways of doing business have been starved of oxygen. The physical realm — meeting for coffee, hashing out the details over lunch or dinner, confabbing with colleagues in sequestered office rooms — has been put on hold. Quite simply, we have had to find new ways of doing things. Where can we look for good examples of new practices?

The English and Welsh justice system has had to meet the challenges presented by Coronavirus head on in order to keep the wheels of justice moving, in large part by moving their services online. Some of these actions have meant implementing within a matter of weeks plans that were designed to be rolled out over a number of years, like the court-wide videoconferencing system. Other initiatives, like the move of preliminary court proceedings away from in-person to audio or video, began life as sticking plasters and ended up being retained because they were found to work better for everyone than the old methods did. There are lessons many organisations can learn from this.

One of the courts’ most conspicuous achievements during the Coronavirus pandemic has been the adoption of their Cloud Video Platform (CVP), originally slated for introduction over the course of several years but eventually released at the high point of Covid-19 in April and May over a matter of months. Depending on who you speak to, online courts were touted as either ancillary support to in-person court proceedings or were the future of the courts system as a whole. But nobody expected that in the space of less than a year they would be employed so readily and frequently to handle cases. The benefits are multiple. For example, if a barrister practices in Lancashire and has one case listed in Preston Crown Court, and another in Blackburn Magistrates’ Court, rather than spend half an hour making the journey between the two venues, they can use that time at their desk preparing for the case, or speaking with clients over the phone or via video link, thereby making the entire process more efficient.

But this new way of hearing cases can bring up many problems. Those who feel anxious about being deprived of their their ‘day in court’, a sense of being isolated from proceedings, extended screen time causing fatigue, and a lack of understanding as to how digital courts function present multiple wellbeing concerns for both clients and legal professionals. This is important for all of us to understand; it is natural that individuals may find themselves in strange and difficult positions due to Coronavirus, particularly if they have been shielding or looking after vulnerable family members. Acknowledging and accommodating these personal situations is a crucial element of successfully consolidating remote working practices.

Events in the data protection space have also presented challenges. One of the major developments to have occurred since the outbreak has been the rise of third-party videoconferencing platforms, most notably Zoom. This generated a lot of conversations about the potential holes in its privacy and data security (some of which have since been plugged). Although Zoom was by no means the only provider in the frame, this saga turned the spotlight on how secure third-party providers of videoconferencing might (or might not) be when it comes to doing business that includes privileged or confidential information. This has by no means put people off, but it may mark the start of the professionalisation of videoconferencing, expanding beyond and moving away from the formerly core market of users casually looking to contact friends and family overseas.

Of course, none of this could be possible without a robust digital infrastructure. Poor bandwidth in parts of the country can lead to cases being adjourned and it is widely acknowledged that connectivity can be patchy in the more remote areas away from cities and towns. This speaks to a wider issue of underinvestment in the digital and online space by successive governments, and investment should be encouraged in order for our digital networks to flourish.

The Lord Chief Justice has said there is ‘no going back’ to the pre-Covid way of doing things. This statement could be employed for the world of business as a whole, even if the current situation turns out to be a short-term solution rather than a new status quo. Travel across continents and oceans to do business in person could easily return in the years to come. But new and innovative practices should be observed closely, and heeded. There is always something we can learn from them.

All opinions are my own.

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan | Policy Analyst: Bar Council

Stuart’s work at the Bar Council includes working on new and ongoing efforts to improve the practising lives of barristers. He works with HM Courts and Tribunals Service on their court reform programme and is responsible for the IT Panel, with a focus on new data regulations, LegalTech and AI, and the Alternative Dispute Resolution Panel, where he helps to promote the use of arbitration and mediation as effective methods of dispute resolution across the Bar.

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