With coronavirus spreading worldwide, courts are increasingly closing their physical spaces and relying on video technology to keep the wheels of justice moving. The UK Supreme Court has equipped itself with high-definition cameras for livestreaming. In the US, both state and federal courts are effectively closing their courthouses and moving to videoconferencing for at least certain types of hearings.
Time will tell whether this shift portends a larger move to court-centered online dispute resolution, or whether courts will revert to their traditional courtroom operations once the health crisis is over. My sense is that it will be some of both. Courts are highly unlikely to jettison the social grandeur of the courthouse entirely, and of course no video can replace the physical intimacy of a jury trial or an evidentiary hearing. At the same time, courts would be wise to use this moment as an opportunity to craft a form of public online dispute resolution for appropriate types of cases — a form of resolution that is as (or more) effective, cheaper, and more trustworthy than private ODR.
There will be much more to say in this story as it develops. Stay healthy and sane, everyone.
Northern Ireland is facing a serious shortage of judges on its High Court, and a recent report on the problem sheds some light into why. The government wants to promote only top barristers to the position, eschewing the candidacies of lower-level judges. But it turns out the targeted barristers are not interested:
Among the startling findings of the report obtained by the Irish News is the blunt admission by top lawyers that it simply does not pay to apply for what in the past was regarded as a promotion, with “considerable rewards still available to barristers and solicitors through non-publicly funded work”.
“As far as solicitors are concerned, the head of the Belfast branch of an international firm asked us rhetorically why he or she would want to take a 50 per cent pay cut in order to become a High Court judge,” the authors said.
“It seems clear, certainly, that in Northern Ireland there is a cadre of high-earning lawyers who, at present, are not likely to be interested in applying to become a High Court judge because they would be significantly better off financially if they stayed in their current job.”
One QC said simply: “I just wouldn’t be interested in the job.”
Continue reading ““Recruitment crisis” in Northern Ireland’s courts reveals misalignment in candidate and recruiter expectations”
Professor Avi Bell points out the embarrassing treatment of Israel at the International Criminal Court, where due process, transparency, and moral legitimacy are nowhere to be found. Bell argues that Israel’s only reasonable response is to stop treating the ICC like a legitimate legal or juridical organization. Previously, Israel had determined to cooperate with the ICC in order to assure that its side of the story was told. But given the ICC’s absurd and open hostility to Israel, I am inclined to agree with Professor Bell’s assessment.
In the last 15-20 years, court systems across the United States have slowly begun their own outreach in order to educate the public about their structure and their work. And there is good reason for the courts to take on this mission. The loss of robust civics education in many communities, combined with the flattening and sharpening effects of social media (which combine to eliminate much of the essential context and nuance from stories about the courts), means that court and judges are at increased risk of caricature.
One of the best programs originated in Colorado. Called “Our Courts Colorado,” it sends state judges to speak to schools and community groups about what exactly it is that the courts do. The program tries simultaneously to demystify the judicial system and to educate people about the important work of the courts.
The idea is spreading, slowly but surely, to other common law countries. New Zealand recently unveiled its own nine-minute video describing how the courts work. The video (also called “Our Courts”) is a little dry, but it has many subtle strengths. It shows judges in ordinary business dress, which humanizes them. It clearly explains the different levels within the court system, and the responsibilities of each court. And the video is available in three languages: English, Maori, and Mandarin.
Courts increasingly need to be their own advocates, and that includes assuring basic public familiarity with their work. This is a nice step forward in New Zealand.
The global media is starting to report on a horrific incident that took place in a Thai courtroom at the beginning of October. Judge Khanakorn Pianchana had just announced the acquittal of five criminal defendants accused of murder when he grabbed a handgun and shot himself in the chest. In a 25-page document explaining his actions, Judge Khanakorn claimed that he had been under political pressure from the ruling authorities to convict the defendants of murder, even though the evidence against the defendants was insufficient and obtained primarily through improper interrogation and detention measures.
Judge Khanakorn survived the shooting and is now recuperating from his injuries. But the incident has shaken Thailand. One issue is why he would take such a drastic step as to attempt suicide in the courtroom. Khanakorn himself explained that he could not ethically convict the suspects without adequate proof, but he knew his career would be destroyed if he exonerated them. Others, however, have postulated that Judge Khanakorn is suffering from extreme depression and related issues that prompted him to try to take his own life.
In any event, it is a stunning incident, and a sad moment for the judge and for the administration of justice.
The multi-year battle between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the state’s judiciary took another ugly turn this week, when it was revealed that deputy justice minister Lukasz Piebiak orchestrated a secret effort to blackball judges who were critical of the party. One of the main targets was Judge Krystian Markiewicz. According to reports, Piebiak and a woman known only as “Emilia” planned to anonymously send material with rumors about Markiewicz’s private life to his home, as well as regional branches of the judicial association Iustitia.
This section of the conversation transcript between Piebiak and Emilia is eyebrow-raising:
Emilia: I will talk to journalists and send letters, anonymously by email and also by post. The only problem is I don’t have addresses and emails. I will do everything I can, as always, but won’t vouch for the result. I hope they won’t jail me.
Piebiak: We don’t imprison people for good deeds.
With the story consuming the news, yesterday Piebiak tendered his resignation. This is an obvious black eye for the PiS with national elections coming in October. But given the party’s unrepentant attacks on the judiciary and the rule of law over the past four years, it’s hard to believe that any real lesson has been learned.
The Rio de Janiero State Court in Brazil will begin prosecuting corruption cases through special “faceless” courts designed to hide the identity of the presiding judges. It is the seventh Brazilian state to implement such a system. The change is coming after more than twenty judges received police protection from death threats by gangs and organized crime.
Under the new system, three judges will rotate every sixty days and all decisions will be signed by the principal judge. Variations of the system were used to protect judges in Colombia in the 1990s.
This is obviously an extreme development, and the safety of the judiciary must be taken seriously. But it comes at a serious cost — the accused will not be able to know the identity of, the very person who will be condemning them to prison (or worse). It’s a dark moment for everyone when due process must be diluted for the sake of judicial safety.