There’s no doubt that many aspects of society have become more informal. All the more so, since the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily required most professionals to work from the comfort of their home. It’s been made possible by technology, including Zoom and other videoconferencing methods.
But few would argue that in legal profession, some judges, lawyers, and clients have taken things too far.
According to a recent news item, a 34-year-old female judge in Columbia has been handed a 3-month suspension of duties for appearing in a recent court hearing in her underwear, semi-nude and smoking while reclining in her bed. According to the judicial disciplinary committee that investigated the matter, she was in a “deplorable” state on-screen: Slurring her words and “disheveled with sleepy eyes”.
Perhaps surprisingly, this isn’t the first time that Zoom court hearings have seen their participants display poor judgment or misbehave outright.
In one instance out of Peru, a lawyer was reported to have been caught having sex during a Zoom hearing. The unprompted “show” went on for several minutes, even after the presiding judge tried to alert the lawyer that he and his sex partner were giving a live feed. The judge then ordered an investigation by the State Prosecution Service, declaring that he was witnessing “obscene acts” that violate public decency.
Of course it doesn’t have to be sexy, to be questionable. In an American Bar Association article, there are numerous accounts of lesser on-screen misjudgment by the various participants to a remote video hearing, such as:
- A client who appeared in her bikini by a pool
- A lawyer who puffed a cigar on-screen
- Another lawyer who drank a glass of wine during the proceedings
- A defendant who appeared without pants on
- Another who left his meth pipe on the table behind him
Even celebrity trials are not immune to this kind of too-casual behaviour: One witness in the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial gave his video testimony to the court from inside his car. He is seen vaping, and then starts his car and begins to drive off.
As amusing as some of these incidents are, hopefully they are still the exception rather than the rule. But with Zoom hearings becoming a now-permanent fixture of the judicial system, the question remains whether protocols and mandates around court decorum need to be tightened, to safeguard the integrity of the judicial system.
Fortunately in Canada, there doesn’t seem to be the same level of laxity – at least so far. Perhaps that’s due in part to some judicial vigilance around the issue. For example, on its website the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has published a document titled “Virtual Courtroom Etiquette Rules” that includes the following directives to lawyers, clients and witnesses who participate in remote hearings:
(i) Be courteous and respectful to all virtual court participants.
(ii) Participants must remain on mute until their matter is called.
(iii) If the judge determines that you are behaving in a disruptive or abusive manner, they may remove you from the meeting.
(iv) Do not bring food to the virtual courtroom. This includes chewing gum.
(v) When appearing via video, the only beverage permitted is water and it must be in a clear glass or container.
(vi) Do not use tobacco or vaping products in the virtual courtroom.
(vii) Do not prop your feet up on a table or chair when appearing via videoconference.
(viii) Do not walk around or step away during a videoconference meeting. If you need to step away from the meeting or divert your attention away from the screen during the meeting, advise the judge and stop your video.
It’s not much, but the bigger surprise is that it’s necessary for the court to make a list like this at all.