BY TRICIA RIVERA
A transition to online proceedings has proved a technical challenge for the Victorian courts, but it may be the answer to clearing a back-logged legal system.
Audio visual links (AVL) allow people to participate in proceedings via video conferencing.
Barrister Abbie Roodenburg regularly conducts trials at the Supreme and County Courts of Victoria and has embraced the technology in recent months.
“Pre-COVID, I utilised AVL only for specific witnesses to appear in court,” Ms Roodenburg said.
“[Now] almost all of the hearings I appear in are over an online platform.”
The Supreme and County Courts of Victoria have provided Zoom backgrounds for legal practitioners and information on the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of virtual hearings, to maintain court etiquette.
Ms Roodenburg said formality can be maintained if parties cooperate, but poor internet connection and video or audio quality can pose a challenge.
“Being unable to really see the magistrate or judge’s face on a small screen is perhaps the thing that detracts most from the authority of the court over AVL,” she said.
Criminal jury trials were set to commence on July 20 but their resumption has been postponed due to the second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria.
Virtual hearings without juries are still taking place to minimise backlog, but can be disadvantageous for defendants appearing in pleas, committals and trials.
“Not being physically present can also give a person on remand the sense of being somewhat removed from the proceedings,” Ms Roodenburg said.
“There is less opportunity for interaction, for the observation of facial expressions and tone, all of which add to the gravity of the circumstances the person in custody faces.”
Despite these difficulties, Ms Roodenburg sees the benefit in maintaining online court for short administrative hearings, post-COVID.
“There is a real benefit to the parties being able to log on at a set time, do the appearance, and return to their day without the travel time to and from court and the uncertainty of what time your matter will be heard,” she said.
Law Institute of Victoria Criminal Law Section co-chair Nicole Spicer similarly sees many benefits to boosting the use of online court for Victorian proceedings.
Ms Spicer said shorter meetings can take place efficiently and effectively in an online environment.
“The use of AVLs has seen many benefits from rural and regional practitioners,” Ms Spicer said.
“[It has] increased their ability to participate in professional groups and activities which can otherwise tend towards being Melbourne-centric.”
Not only is it advantageous for practitioners but is also a “very significant advantage” for defendants, she said.
“They avoid the disruption of being moved from one custodial setting to another, often resulting in days of disruption to routine, programs and prison work.
“[AVL] is an excellent tool and COVID has precipitated some really positive developments, which otherwise may have taken years to come about.”