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Translating common courtroom etiquette to a digital environment

You’re not going to interrupt the judge no matter where you’re sitting, but other considerations might not be so clear

Translating common courtroom etiquette to a digital environment

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On March 30, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice Tweeted that the traditional requirement to gown for hearings continues to be suspended. Participants in video hearings can keep wearing their “appropriate business attire,” and many lawyers across the province breathed a sigh of relief.

This is an example of how things are changing, at times on the fly, as we adapt to working from home and try our best to keep a level of professionalism in virtual court proceedings. When it comes to practising law in a remote environment, there are some common sense rules that most lawyers seamlessly carry to their online courtrooms, but in an ever-changing environment best practices can be a slippery thing to define.

There are now a host of virtual best practices that litigators may not have considered, and while some traditional courtroom etiquette easily translates to the digital realm — you’re not going to interrupt the judge when he or she is speaking no matter where you’re sitting, or what you’re wearing — other considerations might not be so clear-cut.

Common sense best practices, on and offline

  1. Be on time

People popping into video conferences late is as much a distraction as strolling through the courtroom doors after start time for an in-person trial. Much like you prepped for potential traffic jams, for example, when commuting to a physical courtroom, port that habit to your digital workplace and set up early.

  1. Use the proper form of address for the judge and other counsel

There may be a bit more of an informal vibe when attending virtually, but it’s still key to approach the matter at hand and your colleagues with respect.

  1. H2O zone

As in physical courtrooms, eating and drinking is not a good idea while attending a trial. Keeping a glass of water handy is acceptable, but save those quarantine snacks for after.

  1. Dress appropriately

The Ontario Superior Court may be embracing the no-robe approach, but other jurisdictions and levels of court are still requiring gowns. Start safe and wear professional business attire, and make sure you check out the dress requirements on a case-by-case basis. As always, hats or head coverings — other than for religious reasons — do not fall under the category of appropriate dress code.

  1. Posture

You wouldn’t slouch in your chair or put your feet up on other surfaces if you were participating in an in-person trial, so make sure that attentive, professional carriage is with you at home as well.

Best practices for digital courtrooms

  1. Consider others’ tech setups

Not all Wifi is created equal, and neither are the devices used to access it. It’s a good practice to take into account other participants may have slower internet connections or equipment that doesn’t support good audio quality, for example, and don’t forget court reporters and interpreters could be trying to follow along as well. Try to speak slowly and clearly to facilitate others’ understanding.

  1. Consider your own tech set up

Get the best Wifi you can, and when using it for virtual hearings try to limit other devices’ connections to it. Close all other tabs and applications, mute notifications and test the Wifi’s strength in your preferred set up location. As for devices, consider using an external microphone, a headset or earbuds with a built-in microphone that will capture your voice more clearly and cut down on background noise. Keeping your microphone on mute when not speaking is also a good way to keep audible distractions to a minimum.

  1. Eye contact

When addressing the participants, resist the urge to look at them on your screen and instead keep your eyes on your camera lens. This ensures all other participants will have direct eye contact with you when you’re speaking.

  1. Objection!

If you have an objection — or a response, comment or anything along those lines — that can’t wait, raise your hand to show the presiding judicial official that you wish to speak and wait to be acknowledged.

  1. No nicknames

Everyone on the video call will be able to see your screen name, so remember to change it from that funny nickname you used during your last virtual game of Family Feud with friends. Ensure your screen name is your given name and surname only.

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