Coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced industries globally to reinvent themselves in challenging times. Many South African businesses are frequently conducting virtual meetings. Parts of the South African judiciary, have embraced technology and implemented systems to ensure that the hearing of some matters can continue during the lockdown. A number of matters have been heard through electronic platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
As seen in the United Kingdom, the conduct of such hearings is not always smooth sailing.
Recently, the United Kingdom's Court of Appeal (civil division) delivered a judgment in a recusal application. In this matter, a hearing was conducted via Zoom. The judge and her clerk discussed the arrangements regarding the appellant's evidence, in the judge's chambers. Unbeknown to the Judge, the link to the "Zoom court room" remained open, despite the laptop being closed. The judge's private conversation with her clerk was overheard by the attendees in the "Zoom court room".
During this private conversation, the judge expressed her frustration with the delays in the proceedings which, according to the judge were caused by the appellant trying "every trick in the book" to avoid answering difficult questions whilst giving evidence. The judge was alerted to this but at that stage, nothing could be done.
As a result, the appellant in the proceedings brought a recusal application and consequently, the Court of Appeal remitted the matter to the Acting President of the Family Division to give directions for the future conduct of the proceedings before a fresh judge.
The judgment highlights the importance of being extra cautious in environments that would ordinarily be "private".
Given the prevalence of the conduct of business by way of virtual platforms and the likelihood of virtual meetings becoming the new norm, set out below are a few practical tips to avoid subsequent embarrassment:
- Test the technology before an important meeting: Ensure that you are able to connect and in the event that you experience any difficulties, you have the contact details of the meeting organiser to resolve any issues.
- Arrange your personal "meeting room": Create a private workspace by positioning yourself against a blank wall and by reducing background noises by closing windows and doors. Ensure that your personal "meeting room" has sufficient light by positioning a light source in front of your device. Another tip is to use earphones or headphones instead of the device's speaker for better clarity.
- Understand the functionalities of the platform: Know how to mute yourself, switch the camera on and off and "raise your hand".
- Avoid using the "chat" function linked to the meeting for private conversations: Many virtual platforms support a chat function. However, this chat function is generally for all participants in the meeting and is therefore not appropriate for private conversations. An alternative is to create a WhatsApp group or group email chain for private discussions during the meeting.
- Do not multitask and avoid any unnecessary movements: Avoid placing yourself in a situation where you are not following the conversation and/or mistakenly sharing your screen with meeting participants by focusing in the meeting. An easy tip for doing so is to close your mailbox and any other applications that are not relevant to the meeting to avoid any distractions.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.