Written by Michael Owen
The cogs of South Africa’s judicial system have remained untouched for decades, failing to stay abreast with modernity, and doing so at its own peril. However, arguably the biggest upside to the Covid-19 pandemic, from our legal landscape’s point of view, is that the pandemic has acted as a catalyst to finally modernize the way that law is practiced.
In order to stay afloat, most professions nowadays have had to adapt to worldly demands, in one way or another – the same cannot necessarily be said for the legal fraternity. It remains an archaic system, heavily paper-based and unwavering towards the conveniences of modern technologies. For far too long, South African lawyers have had to jump through many avoidable hoops in order to approach our courts. But now, our courts have started to realize the potential that technology can offer.
Before a Judge or Magistrate is expected to hear a matter, the court file needs to be in order. This entails hard copies (an original and various copies thereof) to be physically served on the relevant parties and filed at court. The problem that arises, however, is that hard copies can go missing and this leads to a plethora of complications that, in today’s time, need never have arisen. Additionally, each copy would be numbered (indexed and paginated) by hand. This is time-consuming and flirts with the prospect of human error by the page numbers not aligning. Consequently, the pandemic has opened the door to long-anticipated relief.
The need for social distancing has encouraged lawyers not to travel to other firms and therefore they can, for the most parts, serve and file legal documents electronically and meet virtually. Furthermore, computers can electronically paginate pdf documents. Accumulatively, the affect has been simply profound. The need to stand in long court queues, the cost implications associated therewith and the chances of human error have been dramatically reduced.
Courts the world over have been hesitant to allow their hearings to proceed virtually. However, the pandemic has forced them to utilize the idea of virtual hearings and the results have been largely positive. Lawyers can present their case from the comfort of their chambers while the Judge or Magistrate can hear the matter from either court, chambers or even at home. All the resources that a Judge or lawyer might require are at their disposal and it can remove the risk of long adjournments in order to afford the opposing side from running out of court to urgently find a document or the like.
Similarly, lawyers can consult with their clients virtually. The online platforms have thus removed the necessity for back-and-forth travels and allowed lawyers to practice more flexibly, and in the long-term, the client benefits the most.
The new strides that our courts have cautiously taken are gladly welcomed. As virtual hearings become normalized in South Africa, more clients will gain access to legal assistance for cheaper and their day in court will arrive sooner.
Going forward, and as the practice of virtual hearings becomes more common, we ought to consider the potential side-effects (whether good or bad). Although this is outside the scope of this article, it is at least worth noting how online fatigue may play a role, whether lawyers will become more distracted during the hearing and how the inability to read body language and other nuances, which are key to in-person negotiations and arguments, will influence the way that law is practiced.
Our offices have embraced the changes and we are ready to usher in a new era of legal practice which we believe will be more beneficial for our clients.
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE).