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Remote hearings: the highlights

By: Gemma McLoughlin Burke

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Remote hearings have provided endless entertainment during the past year. The world’s legal profession, notoriously lacking in tech savvy, were pushed into a new system of online hearings without any time to adjust. The result: pure comedic gold. As we continue to speculate as to whether remote hearings are here to stay, it would be remiss of us not to take a moment to appreciate the best remote hearing hiccups of the past year.

  1. Technical glitches

Rod Ponton became the world’s most adored lawyer after appearing on a remote hearing as a cat. Mr Ponton had been using his secretary’s laptop and found himself unable to remove the cat filter resulting in arguably the best submission any Court has ever heard, "I'm here live, I'm not a cat." In San Francisco, an employment lawyer appeared onscreen framed by majestic virtual sunbeams. He apologized and explained to the Judge that he had been at a Zoom happy hour and didn’t know how to turn off the background.

  1. Lack of professional attire & decorum

A recurring problem with all remote hearings seems to be a lack of professionalism on the part of all participants. In Florida, Circuit Judge Dennis Bailey formally wrote to the Weston Bar Association requesting that lawyers put some clothes on when appearing on virtual hearings. “It is remarkable how many ATTORNEYS appear inappropriately on camera,” he remarked. “One male lawyer appeared shirtless and one female attorney appeared still in bed, still under the covers.” District Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke said she had a woman appear wearing no clothes and her hair in curlers. (She apparently didn’t know her camera was on.) Finally, in London, one Judge had to interrupt the delivery of a ruling to open the door and let out an increasingly loud meowing cat.

  1. To mute or not to mute?

Whether you’re forgetting to mute yourself or speaking for five minutes before someone kindly informs you haven’t unmuted, it’s safe to say that the mute button has become the nemesis of every working professional for the past year. During a US Supreme Court hearing in 2020, the unmistakeable sound of a toilet flushing interrupted the submissions of lawyer Roman Martinez. The culprit was never identified and the Court gracefully carried on as though nothing had happened. In Jefferson, Circuit Court Judge Charles Cunningham reported that one lawyer failed to mute himself and promptly fell asleep after logging on, drowning out Court proceedings with the sound of his snoring. When Judge Cunningham sought advice from fellow Judge Stan Chauvin, he was advised “Don’t be so boring.” Excellent advice for Judges and advocates alike.

Mute wars have also become a feature of remote hearings. District Judge Jennifer Leibson described getting into a “mute war” with a lay litigant who refused to be quiet during his hearing. Similarly, during a hearing related to the Capitol Hill riots, one accused rioter, Landon Copeland, interrupted submissions for one of the accused by continuously shouting “I object”. He was muted by the sitting Judge but the moment he was unmuted he launched into a tirade of abuse, shouting "I don't like you people! I don't know who you are, you are a robot to me. I'm out here in the desert, in no-man's-land. You can't find me if I don't want you to. You're evil, that's what you are. You need to shut up." As Copeland shouted, Judge Meriweather paused the hearing and sent Copeland to a separate videoconference room. When the hearing resumed, Copeland started arguing with the clerk, said "f*ck all of y'all," and was muted again.

  1. Location, location, location

Two types of people have emerged during the pandemic; those who have the perfect zoom set-up with a blank background and flattering lighting and those who will take a call wherever they happen to be. Some amazing stories have emerged from the US. In one case a man in Chicago charged with driving a stolen car appeared on his remote hearing in a stolen car. In another, a woman who had been in a car wreck decided to appear at her zoom deposition while driving. Finally, in one case a surgeon appeared on his zoom hearing while in the operating room carrying out plastic surgery.

The Irish approach

Although the above stories seem like extreme examples of remote hearing disasters, Irish courts have also experienced many the blunder over the past year. Some minor incidents have been reported, such as one legal team forgetting to mute themselves while bad-mouthing the Judge, who was very obviously able to hear them given their increasingly red-faced embarrassment on screen. In Court 5, persons in custody appearing via videolink have subjected the Court to colourful language and at times comic outbursts. Similarly, on more than one occasion court staff have had to interrupt lively chats between members of the prison service who don’t seem to realise they’re being watched on screen by a Court full of people. The most exciting mishap involved a lawyer forgetting to mute themselves after their application and beginning a conversation with someone offscreen in which they referred to the morning’s list as “a f*cking sh*tshow”. As we continue to speculate as to the level of remote hearings that will remain after normal life resumes, we can at least cherish the episodes of entertainment that remote hearings have provided to us in the last year.

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