Being in the midst of a pandemic, hopefully most people would agree, understand or accept that public health and safety should come before any other priority. This is indisputable and I genuinely hope that every decision that we take individually or as a society is underpinned by this principle for the common good. Having said that, what is also troubling the minds of many of us is the impact that this global phenomenon will have on the economy, our business, our work, our lives. In other words, we can’t help but think about the day after tomorrow; and we are right to do so.
Focusing on the legal industry in Cyprus, covid-19 has obviously been the cause of a long “pause” in our (normal ways of doing) business, particularly in the field of litigation. The extent of the consequences that this pause will bring to the industry cannot be determined at this stage, but we can only think positive. After all we have demonstrated several times in the past that we can be creative, innovative and flexible. The question is how flexible can we really be at this point and in the situation that we find ourselves in, and what are the limitations?
What seems to be evident from the current difficult situation that we face is that the virus has exposed certain weaknesses of our legal system, which we all already knew about, but for one reason or the other (whether justified or unjustified) our community has been yet unable to adequately address. This is not something extraordinary: generally, when faced with an emergency, it is expected that we are able to see where we are more fragile. The important thing is to recognise what needs to be done and do it.
The elephant in the room is the lack, or insufficient use, of IT to support our court services. Decision-making has been slow in connection with the implementation of advancements made in technology, something that delays the evolution and modernisation of our legal system. Examples include inter alia the use of a network – intranet – to facilitate access to and sharing of information, electronic storage of data, e-filing of court documents, automatic recordings, electronic presentation of evidence, even the establishment of virtual courts (for certain types of cases). Although I claim to be no expert in the technicalities of any of these, surely such concepts do not sound foreign in 2020.
Even though it appears that during the lockdown, most law firms have internally managed to use technology in order to overcome the setbacks of distant working and proved to be able to produce work in these circumstances, our court system seems to be paralysed as it lacks the IT infrastructure required to allow this work to progress and ensure the continuation of legal proceedings.
The other limitation, which may be less apparent, has to do with our own attitude as a legal community. In general, we seem to be so comfortable with the traditional ways of conducting business and our standard work practices, that we have failed to embrace change; change in the way that our clients operate and conduct business, their needs and expectations, their goals. As an example, we barely touched the concept of e-signatures whilst we accept that we are still required to put stamps on court applications and affidavits, or to seek for missing court files.
Overall, the aforementioned limitations illustrate our lack of pre-emptiveness, or passivity, towards reforming our legal system. This pandemic proved that we missed an opportunity that (most probably) would have given us the ability to minimise, mitigate or even control the disruption that we are currently facing in our business. Certainly, this is not to say that the technological shortcomings in courts constitute the sole cause of the difficulties that we currently face in the legal sector; in view of the effect of this virus on the global economy, it is not even a significant cause. Moreover, some may reasonably say that due to the restrictions imposed worldwide there are no clients to whom we can provide our services; this can be a valid point but experience so far shows that there is still demand for legal services, and we need to be ready and able to deliver. Besides, there is no other way than forward.
We cannot be certain of the exact consequences that this pandemic will have on the legal sector and their extent, but the current shutdown of the world’s economy is sparking fears of another recession. The point is however that, crisis or no crisis, it is hard to deny that a reformed, IT-enabled legal system would have made us more efficient, speedier, more flexible, cost-effective, more reliable and ready to face challenges; if not during the lockdown, then surely after the relaxation of the measures and when we recover. If we are still considering the appropriateness of a shift towards e-justice, maybe it is the right time to ask ourselves, ‘is the court a place or a service’?