How The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Affected Our Legal Systems: Trends, Benefits, And Challenges
Mar 25, 2021 08:05 PM EDT
The past year saw the COVID-19 Pandemic emerge as the biggest humanitarian challenge to the entire world. The destruction in terms of the loss of life and economic hardships saw billions getting affected in one way or the other. Almost all industries and areas of operation have been forced to leave their traditional models of functioning and adopt newer models.
One industry that has always been associated with history, tradition, lineage, and the past has been the Legal Industry. For centuries, the legal system has enjoyed a somewhat archaic existence. The processes, policies, judicial officers, etc. were felt to have lost their touch with a modern 21st-century world.
In many ways, the pandemic has turbocharged the adoption of technology and digital in legal systems. In this feature article, we are going to look at some important aspects of technology's impact via the COVID-19 Pandemic on our legal systems.
Specifically, we try to highlight the following-
- Trends in Technological Adoption in the Legal System
- Newer areas of legal disputes that are gaining traction post the pandemic
- Benefits of moving to new technology and digital-driven model of working
- Challenges that the legal system faces because of the shift
Trends in Technological Adoption in the Legal System: What you need to know
Skype, Microsoft Teams, Zoom Calls, and Telephone...
Our humble courts have had to start functioning by taking help from technology and digital platforms during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Like almost all public offices, the pandemic resulted in the shutting down of courts and other judicial processes. In its immediate short-term, this resulted in a piling up of legal cases at different courts all over the country.
After three to four months into the pandemic, important cases started being taken up by the courts through video conferencing. At this stage, a majority of courts and legal procedures were not made open to the general public.
According to legal expert and commentator Heather Douglas, the following are some of the major trends in technological adoption in our legal systems-
- Online Paperwork-
With the Coronavirus pandemic putting an end to physical touching of objects, the justice, and legal systems have been made to go for online paperwork. However, the scope has been restricted in many cases. Many experts believe that using online paperwork, especially for court copies and how affidavits need to be filed will undergo a serious overhaul.
- Scheduling Via Online Portals-
You name it; everything from motions, appointments, trials, and pre-trials has all shifted online and is being conducted through portals. Visiting the chambers or any other form of in-person meeting and attendance has virtually come to an end because of the pandemic. A lot of emails are being used for filing paperwork, submitting pieces of evidence, and other aspects.
- Faster Dispensation of Low-Value Cases-
If there is one thing that legal systems the world over have been criticized for, it is the rate of the dispensation of cases. The processes by themselves are too lengthy. With a shift to the online world, cases are being dispensed swiftly by the judges. All the important people concerning a case are attending online hearings leading to better and faster results.
- Digital Court Records-
One area that has seen an upward trend is the advocacy of maintaining digital court records. As more paperwork starts being generated and processed online, access to digital court records becomes much faster and efficient. Judges can write orders almost instantaneously and judicial officers can put them online instantaneously.
Newer Areas of Legal Disputes that are gaining traction During and Post the Pandemic
We have already discussed how the pandemic has been effective in changing the way we live, work, and entertain ourselves.
It has also had an everlasting impact on the emergence of newer forms of disputes thanks to the pandemic. In this section, we look at some emerging areas of legal disputes that the judicial and legal systems of our land need to prepare for-
1. Employment Law and 'Work From Home' Disputes-
WFH has become the new normal! Even after the pandemic ends, tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have stated that more than half of their employees will continue working from home.
This means that the Employment Laws will now see a new uptick and experience changes as far as WFH disputes go. It would become the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe and secure working environment for the employees whenever they visit the offices.
It also means that companies will have to do their bit to ensure that the employees and the workplace are in no way contributing to the spread of future waves of the pandemic. Experts opine that employment laws are going to experience major changes in this regard.
2. Family Law and the Uptrend in Divorces-
Case studies and data from different parts of the world, including the United States, show an upward trend in divorces. With relationship experts and counselors blaming the serious time being spent indoors as a major contributor.
Divorce lawyers have now started offering a free consultation to affected parties. Mediation is also being carried out by experts to offer to counsel to the aggrieved. This has led to several young lawyers expressing an interest in Family Law.
Many senior legal experts suggest that interest in the area of Family Law is going to rise exponentially because of the pandemic. This will also be evident in areas like estate planning and legalities related to real estate purchases and investments.
Benefits of Moving to Technology and Digital Driven Models of Working
If you have been reading the article right from the start, you must have summarised by now that this is an exciting time to enter the field of law.
- The Era of a New Work Culture in the Legal Domain-
New lawyers that dreaded working with old and established traditional processes and practices will not have help from technology and software. This is going to be a watershed moment of sorts in the legal industry.
With social distancing and WFH culture becoming an important aspect of the profession, it would be safe to say that the entire field of law is undergoing a cultural transition. Seen videos of judges and lawyers during video hearings being interrupted by their pets, or their children?
This is the new normal that is going to define work. In some ways, this is a blurring of the lines between what is personal and what is professional. For younger people who love the WFH set-up, this is something that will bring in a lot of positive change and hope in the working culture.
- The Necessity of Technology Adoption and the need for familiarity-
We often say that younger people are great when it comes to using technology and digital platforms. In the post-pandemic world, the need to exhibit technological skills is greater than ever. Knowing and running software and hardware is going to become the need of the hour.
Many of the aged legal statesmen in the field are not adept in making such technological transitions or understanding them in the first place. With younger people joining the ranks, the entire legal system is going to be set for a drastic and radical change.
With physical events, conferences, and seminars not on the horizon in the immediate future, lawyers will have to rely on technology and digital platforms to build relationships.
Talking to your lawyer or having a face-to-face is now going to be dictated by technology. This means that legal minds will have to come up with something extra to build confidence, establish networks and grow their clients.
Challenges that the Legal System faces because of the Technology and Digital Shift
It has to be recognized and pointed out that despite all the benefits that are attached to technology adoption there are certain glaring challenges as well.
- Most of the professionals and legal representatives in the field are at an advanced age. For them moving to a newer format would be difficult right from the start. They will need time, effort, and energy in understanding how the technology works. This means that there will be a steady pile of cases because of the extra time that would be needed.
- The legal field is one where the margin for error is nil. One small mistake in an affidavit means that the same has to be created all over again. This is something that is bound to happen as the transition takes place. This once again will add to the time, effort, and energy of everyone involved in the legal system.
- The interconnected nature of the legal system means that one small flaw (as demonstrated above) will affect everyone involved. This would mean that everyone will have to reschedule and restructure their timings and effort so that a legal process is done in the right manner possible.
- Trials, given the amount of time they are likely to take (technical issues and adoption), will be slowly replaced by mediation and arbitration. Parties will prefer to start resolving issues outside the ambit of the court. It also means that the period between hearings is likely to rise and this can be settled by the parties themselves.
- The costs of engaging with the legal system have seen an increase. The reason for the same is simple. The longer periods that are being required to dispense off cases for the normal public are becoming lengthier by the day. This is affecting the costs for legal fees and other overheads.
In short, there are challenges of cost, time, and difficulty. Like the lawyers, judges, and other legal representatives, normal human beings (litigants) are also getting used to the new system of legal processes.
How the Legal System is faring at the Current Moment?
Right now, a mix of online/virtual hearings and on-court appearances means that lawyers and judges are rushing in and out of courts. This has severely drained counsels and judges that have been required to do a lot of work in a limited amount of time.
While some paperwork can be filed online, others require an in-person appearance. The same goes for trials as well. This has led to the creation of an incomplete process that has been able to demonstrate a midway house between real physical processes and online activities,
Technology is also not perfect. Should the camera or microphone be open or muted, how to deal with call drops, and what to do in areas where internet connectivity is not all that great are issues that many are grappling with?
We all know that many cases are jurisdictional. Meaning that the physical and geographical location of the courts, the act of crime, and the claimants should all belong to a specific location. What happens in an online setting/ should they continue as before or should new rules be drafted to ensure that this does not become an issue?
Lastly, court proceedings demand safety and security at the highest levels. While this can be guaranteed in a court of law as the infrastructure and processes are in place, what happens when you move online?
How do you guarantee that the laptop and software being used by the judges, attorneys and litigants is safe and secure? Should there be a standard software that needs to be installed to ensure that the complete proceedings are safe and cannot be tampered with? Many have already pointed out that 'Zoom Bombings' have taken place in several online hearings.
The Bottom Line
There is no doubt a lot of ambiguity that is happening as far as the transition to technology is concerned. While a start has been made in the right direction, several are pointing to all the troubles and challenges that are cropping up in the process.
While some say that time will be required to iron out the issues and challenges, others prefer going back to the old set-up once the world is sufficiently vaccinated. The legal system is not the tech industry that will be boisterous about shifting to a new model and taking everything in its stride.
It is an institution that has been in the making for several centuries. There is no doubt that there will be resistance. Until then, we would all have to wait and see how the transition pans out.