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The Impact of Technology on the Law: How Technology is Changing the delivery of legal services for Lawyers in Trinidad and Tobago: Part 1

Updated: May 14

How technology is transforming the way justice is delivered by lawyers in the post-COVID-19 era in Trinidad and Tobago


A judge surrounded by computers embracing technology

Introduction


The recent memories of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it disrupted many aspects of life and work, including the legal profession, still linger for lawyer. However, Trinidad and Tobago has been fortunate as it has enhanced the delivery of legal services by the introduction of technology to our judicial system. This article is the first in a series that will explore the impact of technology on the legal profession in Trinidad and Tobago and how it has enhanced the efficiency and accessibility of the justice system and discuss some of the new challenges it has presented to lawyers in Trinidad and Tobago. A future article will address the hurdles faced by the public in looking for a lawyer in Trinidad and Tobago in today’s information age.



Virtual Hearings in Trinidad and Tobago


Lawyers equipped for virtual hearing

The introduction of virtual hearings is perhaps the most recognisable change that technology has brought to the legal profession in Trinidad and Tobago. The speed and efficiency with which the judiciary was able to introduce this technology is an understated and overlooked success story. Virtual hearings of course refers to court proceedings that are conducted online via video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, our judiciary’s preferred choice. Virtual hearings allow the parties, their lawyers and even the judges to attend court from anywhere, as long as they have a device, an internet connection and a suitable environment.


Virtual hearings have brought many benefits to Trinidad and Tobago, such as:

  • Helping in the expansion of the judiciary but allowing judges to manage cases without the physical constrains of a physical courtroom. Gone are the days where judges cannot sit because of a lack of a physical court space.

  • Convenience for the parties, as noted above, litigants can avoid the hassle and cost of travelling to the court, especially for those who live in remote areas or outside of Trinidad and Tobago or have mobility issues.

  • Environmental savings, as virtual hearings reduce the carbon footprint, help to prevent congestion and save everyone on some much needed gas dollars. It was really pointless having parties from all over the country travel into the Hall of Justice, Port of Spain, for a 15 minutes hearing.


Prior to the pandemic video conferencing existed in Trinidad and Tobago but within the confines of the judiciary’s courtrooms. It was mainly used by judges who would, for example, sit physically at the Hall of Justice, Port of Spain, and communicate with lawyers and their clients in another court such as San Fernando or Tobago. The parties themselves were still required to sit at a special courtroom for such hearings.


The transformation to virtual courtrooms is a convenient and cost efficient introduction. Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago residing abroad, for example, can more easily pursue and defend claims without having to travel back and forth.


The judiciary has issued a number of practice directions on virtual hearings. These seek to ensure that they are conducted in a court-like manner, equivalent to the traditional court experience. Lawyers have been urged to share and educate their clients accordingly. The technology demands appropriate skill sets from lawyers, not only technical, IT-related but also new soft skills to adapt to this new virtual world.


Currently, most court hearings that do not involve a full trial, termed case management conferences, are done by virtual hearing and trials are either done virtually or in-person (the new name for the traditional). The matter is left up to the individual judge although the judiciary has a power to limit access to its physical courts depending on the circumstances.


On the whole this has been a huge technological advancement for Trinidad and Tobago that has gone largely unappreciated, kudos to the judiciary and the legal profession.


Electronic Filing of Documents



documents on a desk being replaced by computer filings


Another important change arising post-pandemic is the introduction of electronic filing of documents with the judiciary. Electronic filing, or e-filing, is the process of submitting court documents online, using the judiciary's web portal. E-filing eliminates the need for physical delivery of documents to the respective court registries, now termed manual filings. Manual filings was time-consuming, slow and inconvenient (for example where a matter was filed in a particular court office, e.g. Tobago or San Fernando all other documents, save for a few exceptions, were required to be filed at that registry). It also required more of the judiciary’s resources, in terms of staff and physical storage for files. E-filing also allows for faster and easier access to court records, as they are stored in a digital database that can be searched and retrieved by authorized users (although the digitalisation of manually filed documents was already in place before E-filing came on stream). E-filing also has placed demands on the judiciary and lawyers using the system, particularly IT related costs and training.


Readiness for Change



lawyer on a laptop is the new office desk


Technology has undoubtedly brought many advantages to the legal profession in Trinidad and Tobago, but it also poses some challenges and requires some adjustments. Lawyers and judges need to adapt to this change and to acquire the necessary skills and equipment to make the most of it. Some of the issues that need to be addressed include:

  • Technical competence, as lawyers and judges need to be familiar with the platforms and tools that are used for virtual hearings and e-filing, and to be able to troubleshoot any problems that may arise.

  • Back-up processes, as the judiciary has to ensure that recovery systems are in place in the event of a shut down of the electronic systems, to ensure the smooth delivery of services.

  • Etiquette and professionalism, as lawyers, judges and the public need to maintain the same standards of conduct and decorum that are expected in physical courtrooms, and to respect the rules and protocols that are established for virtual hearings. Practice Directions issued by the judiciary have helped to address this.


Virtual Hearings and E-Filings are a welcome advancement to the legal profession in Trinidad and Tobago and the judiciary’s embracement of the digital age is to be lauded.  It has required some adjustments by all its users, lawyers, judges and the public but the transition has been far easier than expected. It is hoped that the systems continue and that future developments address the challenges posed by the technology.



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