Survey finds virtual NSW courts favourable

·2-min read

Virtual online access to NSW courts during the state's COVID-19 lockdown has created a more flexible and fair justice system, a survey has found.

The Law Society surveyed its members between July and August 2021 when face-to-face court appearances were restricted, and says an overwhelming majority believe online access benefits practitioners, defendants and the taxpayer.

Some 1438 members of the Law Society responded and more than 90 per cent of solicitors said it provides greater flexibility for online case management, direction hearings, lodging documents and other appearances.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said he could envisage continued strong use of virtual courts, with the government continuing to make a significant investment in remote court technology.

"The NSW government has invested more than $43 million in the past five years to expand (audio-visual link) facilities, including for domestic and family violence victims, in more than 179 court rooms," Mr Speakman said.

Funding had also gone to improving the online court video platform, introducing wi-fi and doubling the network bandwidth at 20 NSW courts.

The government plans to at least double the bandwidth at 16 more courts in the coming months, Mr Speakman said.

Law Society president Joanne van der Plaat earlier presented the results of the survey to the attorney-general in the hope of maintaining some of the measures implemented in the COVID-19 lockdowns.

"The Law Society acknowledges that there are many matters, particularly defended hearings and cross-examination, which benefit significantly from being conducted face to face," Ms van der Plaat said in a statement.

But for short mentions where solicitors' practices are located significant distances from courts, the ability to conduct business remotely saves the client the expense of an hours-long commute.

Some challenges with the virtual system include the inability to use the technology efficiently and the courts' lack of consistency in accepting remote witnessing of documents and electronic signatures.

Other concerns raised in the survey included difficulties in assessing witnesses, the disadvantage to self- or unrepresented litigants and reduced ability for young practitioners to "watch and learn".

The survey also found the importance is widely acknowledged of always allowing for some court processes to take place in person, including jury trials.

After speaking with other key legal stakeholders, including the heads of jurisdiction and the NSW Bar Association, the Law Society and other senior figures say gains have been made in conducting non-contested and case management proceedings online.

"(These) should not be lost," Ms van der Plaat said.

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