Open Justice Centre Intern Teah Zdanowicz writes about recent virtual court hearings for this new blog.
The launch of the metaverse by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in 2021 came with much trepidation. The technological advances of the last 20 years have moved at lightning speed without much time to catch-up. We started off this century with phones which were only used for texting, phoning, or an extremely grainy picture and now we can use smartphones to start a business, connect with people all over the world or take camera quality pictures. Technology has not just impacted our personal lives, but it has and is changing the world of work, especially in the law. COVID-19 made virtual court hearings a reality, however the use of virtual reality has not been a widely used tool to emulate a court setting. Despite the Metaverse losing $13.72 billion in 2022, both Colombia and China’s judicial systems have recently used the technology to hold a court hearing.
Using Horizon Workrooms, a free meta platform that makes it possible for groups to collaborate online, a Columbian judiciary held a two-hour court hearing. In order to participate in the hearing, the lawyers involved had to wear virtual reality headsets. Virtual reality headsets work by substituting virtual reality content for the user's natural environment. All the participants involved in the hearing from the judge to the claimant all appeared as computer generated avatars in the hearing, each taking on a cartoon looking figure which represented themself in the courtroom. The hearing was live streamed on YouTube, which generated a few comments from viewers about their opinions on this type of court hearing, with one viewer commenting, “I feel it takes away from the seriousness [of the case],” and another commenting “If I want to see myself in a dinosaur character, is that also acceptable.” (1)
Image copyright - Victoria en linea - Vicky Quiñones
The hearing took place in the Caribbean city of Santa Marta, in the administrative court of Magdalena. The case was brought against the Colombian Ministry of Defence and National Police. The plaintiff had made a direct request to the court magistrate to hold the public hearing in the metaverse, which was also agreed by the defendant. The court magistrate stated that the metaverse was able to foster real interaction and highlighted the positive effect that this technology has on bettering the procedural elements of a case, “as it allowed to bring people in the same virtual space, even when they were physically elsewhere - all without leaving aside the procedural guarantees and the principles of digital justice". During the hearing, the judge stated that she was " all alone in my courtroom; my colleagues are in their offices, the counsel lawyer is in her house, and the other lawyers are in their own premises where they have chosen to connect from”. (2) Colombia is not the first South American country to use the metaverse in a court hearing. In 2022 the Brazilian court of Paraiba used the technology in a conciliatory hearing where parties settled an on-going dispute since 2018. The parties appeared in their avatars within the court and signed an agreement which put an end to this issue.
In China court investigation, cross- examinations and court arguments were carried out in a special metaverse trial. The trial took place in the Xiamen Sliming District Peoples Court and was presided over by a financial judge. The initiative is part of a project from the Higher courts to introduce ‘smart courts’ which are being used to solve real disputes as we move into an era when the meta universe is being integrated in all aspects of life. In this particular case the judge was issuing judgement on two traffic accident insurance subrogation issues, both the plaintiffs in the case were same insurance company, however both defendants were absent during the meta hearing. In order to effectively protect online procedural justice, advance the realisation of substantive justice in cyberspace governance, realise digital justice, and increase trial efficiency, for these purposes the court introduced the most recent meta universe technology advancements in judicial activities.
The hearing in the metaverse was not only for the benefit of the case before the judge and those involved, but it was also used as a learning tool for students at Xiamen University Law School. Students participated in a legal teaching and practice course exploring the metaverse trial, which gave them the opportunity to interact with judges and lawyers from the trail while in their classroom using the meta platform. After the trial student got together in trial mode and held discussions on information security, personal information security issues while also discussing the pros and cons of using this technology within the court system. (3)
As we move into an era of virtual reality the possibilities of using this technology can be harnessed to not only bring justice to citizens but also provide education to future lawyers and barristers.
1. Bello, C ‘Future of justice: ‘Colombia makes history by hosting its first-ever court hearing in the metaverse’
Colombia Just Held a Court Hearing in the Metaverse—Cartoon Avatars and All (yahoo.com) (Accessed 10/03/2023)
2. Salvo, M ‘Colombia Just Held a Court Hearing in the Metaverse—Cartoon Avatars and All’
3. Weihang, J Zhang, Z "Metaverse + Trial + Classroom Teaching" Xiamen Siming Court promotes judicial digitalization and intelligence’
Law School alumni Teah is currently interning with the Open Justice Centre, focusing on legal technology.