The Introduction of 'Webex' during COVID19
Written by Andrea Meloni (Geelong Office)
“Justice has not changed - it is just the mode of delivery that is different”
The operation of courts and the criminal justice system has dramatically changed due to COVID-19. The recent introduction of stage 4 restrictions in Metropolitan Melbourne and the return of stage 3 in the rest of Victoria indicate the running of courts as we knew it, will not return to normal anytime soon.
Nevertheless, the functioning of our justice system is essential to our everyday lives and courts cannot simply be closed. Therefore, the courts commenced using Cisco Webex Meetings (‘Webex’) - a technological platform for continuing virtual court proceedings online. The Supreme Court and County Court commenced using Webex in April this year, and soon after the Magistrates’ Court launched a pilot-program and then officially introduced the ‘Online Magistrates’ Court’ (‘OMC’) in July. So, what exactly is Webex and how does it work in administering (virtual) justice? This article reviews how the technology works and the types of proceedings that will be moved to the online courtroom.
What is Webex?
Webex is a video-conferencing software that facilitates court hearings remotely. It is an app that can be downloaded to most smart devices that connects multiple people at the same time. In basic terms, it is like a FaceTime or video-chat within a virtual court setting, except you are in the comfort of your own home (and maybe pyjama bottoms).
Any Apple, Android or Windows devices with a camera and microphone can be used including tablets, smartphones and computers. Webex can also be linked with traditional court and prison audio-visual links meaning all types of matters can be included.
How does a Webex court proceeding work?
If you have a matter listed on Webex you need a smartphone device that has stable connection to the internet, for example Wifi or 4G. It is free to download the app and you do not need to sign up to an account (you can download the app through this link https://www.webex.com/downloads.html/).
The Court is the Webex “host” and as in the live courtroom a clerk will administer the hearing. Prior to the proceeding, the Court will send a link or calendar invite via which you join the hearing at the time it is listed. If considered appropriate by the presiding Judge or Magistrate, a participant may be able to connect via telephone.
What type of matters?
The Supreme Court and County Court are currently hearing all matters that are considered appropriate and can reasonably proceed as virtual hearings. Meanwhile, the Magistrates’ Court Practice Direction No. 20 of 2020 directs that all matters in Metropolitan Melbourne courts should be listed in the OMC rather than physical court where it is possible.
The OMC can hear a wide range of criminal matters including:
- Bail/remand hearings;
- Consolidated pleas;
- Sentence indication;
- Summary contests subject to witness availability;
- Informant-only committals;
- Submission-only committals; and
- Contested Committals subject to witness availability.
Importantly, to address the backlog of adjourned cases, all Magistrates’ courts are currently in the process of bringing matters forward and moving them to the OMC. If you have a pending matter, it is crucial you keep your contact details up to date with your lawyer so they can contact you and inform you of any changes.
Ultimately, the full effectiveness of Webex and the virtual courtroom is yet to be seen given how fresh it is. However, it’s a welcome start in addressing the backlog that is going to impact courts for some time, and as seen through metro-Melbourne, it is the mechanism that is keeping courts afloat during this tumultuous time. Indeed, as articulated by Chief Magistrate Judge Lisa Hannan: “Justice has not changed - it is just the mode of delivery that is different.”