With medical experts cautioning against a second wave of the COVID-19 virus, the Chamber of Advocates has once again made its case for virtual hearings, saying this is a zero-risk alternative.
“When will it be safe again to go back to court, as we know it?” is the fundamental question currently mooted among those practicing their legal profession in court.
Malta's courts were suspended for all but the most urgent cases in mid-March, as COVID-19 restrictions were introduced.
Referring to the system of remote hearings, recently adopted before the Planning Authority as well as the Appeals Board, the Chamber said that officials and practitioners operating remotely have reported a “positive feedback” in terms of efficiency.
That system, and any teething problems encountered, would provide a sound platform for a similar system to be adopted for court hearings, said the Chamber, adding that there were various ways in which the essentially public nature of those hearings could be retained.
This may be achieved by allowing a media representative to log in to the remote hearing, by having a live-streaming of the hearing, by providing links to hearings in different courtrooms which could be accessed by any interested member of the public or even by relaying the audio and video of the hearing to an open courtroom.
The shift from physical to virtual presence presented a number of challenges, not merely technology-related but also cultural and psychological, but was a measure that needed to be embraced, “not as a Utopia, but a real alternative,” that best guaranteed social distancing.
Listing a number of cases where such a system could be adopted, the Chamber voiced concern by its members who “need assurances that the environment in which they will be working in court will not expose them, and consequently their families, to unwarranted risk.”
“A detailed physical risk assessment” drawn up by public health authorities was a necessary pre-requisite for the re-opening of the courts, said the Chamber, pointing out further that certain working practices were “outdated and no longer fit for purpose.”
In this respect, written procedures would be resorted to more frequently, while those involving testimonies in open court, ought to be postponed to October/November.
The Chamber suggested mapping out the number of sittings, allotting 15-minute slots to avoid overcrowding in halls and corridors, rather than have ten cases all appointed for hearing at 9am.
Cases involving the presence of a “huge number of people” in court, should be postponed it said, while security at the courts’ entry points needed to be strengthened further.
Though daunting, new practices would introduce long-term benefits, it argued.
“What is fundamental is that all stakeholders are involved in a consultative process that will allow the development of new working practices to stand a chance, the willingness to accept the horizons that technology has opened up in a system as conservative as the one we belong to.”
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