Computer and ballpen

My first court appearance during lockdown – in my slippers!

A personal reflection on my experience with a virtual court system.

I had the unusual privilege of being the instructing attorney for a respondent on an urgent application that was launched earlier this week and set down for hearing today. The details of the matter, I am unable to disclose, it being a matter of attorney-client privilege and a matter which is currently sub-judice, but I thought I would pen this blog post as a personal reflection on my experience with a virtual court system.

Today, 16 April 2020, we in South Africa have been in lockdown since midnight on 26 March 2020 – 21 days of staying at home. Lockdown was scheduled to be lifted today but was extended a further 2 weeks until 30 April 2020.

It has, undeniably, been an uncertain time for the legal profession in many respects. Courts have been closed for all matters other than those which are urgent in nature. The requirements for an urgent matter to be heard are extremely stringent in nature and attorneys who bring matters to court that lack sufficient urgency are faced with punitive costs orders.

The Deeds Office, the Masters’ Office and CIPC have been closed. Much of our active work came to an abrupt halt on 26 March 2020, when the lockdown regulations came into effect. Until such time as the lockdown regulations are lifted, and offices, like the ones I have mentioned, reopen, the work of attorneys and legal practitioners can largely only be preparatory in nature. We are all waiting anxiously to be able to commence working again, as and when the Government deems it safe enough for people to return to work. We support and applaud the work of the government to make the extraordinarily difficult decisions it has been faced with since the dangers of COVID-19 became evident.

Thrust into a whole new world.

When, earlier in the week, a client was served with an urgent application, we were thrust into a whole new world. Our matter was set down for this morning. We were advised by the Registrar, shortly after the application was filed that the hearing would take place via Microsoft Teams. We were immediately curious to know how, practically speaking, the matter would proceed, but like many things, we would have to wait and see until the day of the hearing.

The preparatory aspects of the matter involved consultations held over telephone calls and WhatsApp discussions. Drafting took place and was transmitted between the parties involved via email. Upon the completion of the drafting of the papers, a trip to the Police Station was undertaken to sign an affidavit.

The Police Station was quiet and the officials present were friendly and helpful. I was thoroughly sanitised before I was able to enter the building. All the officers were gloved, with masks and eye shields and were wearing aprons.

The affidavit was quickly signed and I scurried back to my car to listen to the esteemed Professor Karim talking about the pandemic on 702 as I returned home.

We were granted access to the new electronic Caselines System earlier in the month of March which meant that we were able to serve and file documentation electronically. The system was efficient, and the Registrar was able to create new sections for documents to be uploaded when the judge requested additional information from the parties. It became apparent that all the parties that were registered as participants on the matter were able to easily access all the documents that the parties had exchanged, quickly and easily. As the hour of the hearing approached, the only aspect which we were not able to work out was how we would toggle between Microsoft Teams and the Caselines systems on a single screen.

And then the day of the hearing dawned – a sunny albeit chilly day in Johannesburg.

For those of you reading this blog-post who have had the luck to not encounter an attorney in a court room in your lifetime, attorneys and advocates are bound by a strict dress code for court. Suits are the order of the day, as are smart shoes. An untidy appearance places a practitioner at risk of being scolded by a presiding officer – or worse – not being heard at all. But in the world of electronic hearings, suddenly the view becomes a little different.

No longer were my shoes visible – safely ensconced in my winter slippers, under my dining room table. What an absolute pleasure it was to have warm feet whilst battling it out in the (now virtual) court.

I confess, the remainder of my outfit was more fitting of that of an attorney – black suit slacks and a jacket and a white shirt – some habits really do die hard.

The final pleasure came, whilst the matter was stood down, for the Honourable Judge to reach her conclusions. An adjournment for an hour provided a window of opportunity to pop the kettle on and make a cup of tea (in a favourite mug) and then wander outside into the sunshine and have a deep breath of fresh garden air.

The challenges of the new virtual world are inherently human – I miss the collegial interactions that we have with our peers (and sometimes opponents) in the hallowed halls of the court building. I miss the sights, smells and sounds of the inner city of Johannesburg.

Despite all of its challenges – crime and poverty being the most pressing – the city has an undeniable energy and when the sun shines, it is an experience which one only finds at the Johannesburg High Court.

I miss a cup of coffee, midway or after the hearing, with counsel and the debrief that goes along with it – yes, this is now done over telephone call – but it’s not quite the same as the personal interactions over a cup of coffee and a delicious biscuit at Nildas. In an online world, and indeed this one, we are blind to the subtleties of human behaviour – we cannot see or read the body language of our opponent, the judge or even our client whilst we are in the virtual world, staying home and staying safe.

The result – like the matter – must remain confidential for the reasons set out above – however – on a personal note, my first foray into the world of online court attendances was one which was surprisingly seamless. My experience of the court system and all of its (now virtual) mechanisms was efficient and easy to follow. But oh, do I miss my fellow person.

I am forever hopeful that we see the end of this pandemic sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, whilst we navigate a new world of digital court rooms and filing online, we’ll continue to adapt and keep abreast of the new and ever changing world of law – if ever there was a time to be dynamic and innovative, it certainly is now.