COVID-19 Has Changed The Framework Through Which We View And Engage With The Criminal Court System

by Ruth Roberts
Man looking out a window at cityscape

“Lord, Make me an instrument of Your Peace…” Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.

Many years ago, when I was learning about the importance of seeing things from other perspectives, I was taught a very useful exercise: Picture yourself at the top of a hill, looking out at the most beautiful view imaginable. Between you and the view is a small wall, set with three windows. One of the windows is circular; one is square and one is diamond-shaped. You look through the circular window and admire the scenery through it. You move to the square window and realize that, even though you are looking at the same scene, it appears different. When you gaze at it through the diamond-shaped window it is even more different – it could be an entirely different landscape. Step away from the wall, and it changes and expands even more dramatically.


Changing your perspective can change your position in unexpected ways. 

That little exercise in changing views is a very useful reminder that we all see things from different perspectives; the framework through which we view events is unique to each of us. And if we change our framework, even slightly, we can arrive at a different view of a situation. I have been seeing things through a lot of different windows during COVID-19, and my assessment of some things has changed. Specifically, my opinions about some of the changes to proceedings in criminal court have moved from skepticism to acceptance, to enthusiastic support.

Full disclosure: I am not someone who is always comfortable with technology. I don’t text. I still handwrite notes and letters. I prefer a telephone call to an e-mail, and I like face to face (or mask to mask!) contact best of all. When we began remote court appearances I was concerned about the effect on my clients, concerned that it would make the Justice system even more impersonal. Now, almost six months in, I am realizing that in some cases remote appearances are making things easier.

COVID-19 has taught me that technology has a valuable place in the criminal court system.

In the past few months, I have remotely assisted clients with remote guilty pleas, sentencings, bail hearings and verdicts. I have done adjournments and Judicial pre-trials. I’ve had my own share of glitches. On one memorable occasion, I was on the telephone for Virtual Court, where I could hear everyone, including their questioning where I was. In a surreal incident I was shouting into the telephone, saying “I’m here! I’m here!” as the Judge and Court staff sent out an e-mail search party to find me. I now know I have to ensure that my telephone microphone is on before I begin a call. I have learned that the mute button can be my friend. But, more importantly, I have learned that in some cases, dealing with a court matter remotely can be easier for my clients.

Remote appearances for virtual court sessions have put many clients more at ease. 

When an out-of-custody client is required to be present for a Court appearance, they attend at our offices. We ensure that all health protocols are in place, with masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing and cleaning between clients. But my client and I are in the same room, able to see each other, and have that important eye contact. The Virtual Courts have the same protocols as real courts, but I have noticed that clients are a little less stressed and intimidated by the justice system when they are here, away from the impersonal and cold trappings of a courtroom, away from what they perceive as other people watching, commenting and judging.

There is a familiarity in our offices, something a little more comforting than the halls of justice. Here in our office, clients don’t have to worry about the reactions of anyone who might be listening to a guilty plea, and submissions on sentence. Whilst virtual court hearings are open to the public, as they should be, at least here there the illusion of privacy.

A step back from the traditional courtroom setting has brought kindness back into focus. 

It has always seemed to me that one of the most important, and sometimes overlooked aspects of the justice system is the need for kindness. In the rough and tumble world of criminal law, that sometimes gets forgotten. And yet, one kind word or small kind act can change the window through which a person views their experience with criminal courts.

I have watched many judges change the demeanour of an accused with simple courtesy, an expression of concern about their well-being, a shared joke or a piece of thoughtful advice. In criminal law, we deal with so many people who believe they are voiceless; whose experiences have lead them to believe they are disposable human beings. Beyond almost anything, we need to help people realize that they are important, that they matter, that they have a right to be heard. It is more than just basic decency. Someone who is treated with respect by the justice system is far more likely to respect, and follow, the directions of that system.

COVID-19 has forced a change in perspective and made us see things we would otherwise have missed. 

COVID-19 has brought many challenges, but it has also brought some benefits. It has moved us from the windows through which we normally viewed life, and forced us to look at other things we may not have noticed. In the days we spent being, instead of doing, many of us have become aware of our shared humanity, our shared struggles, our shared need for peace and human contact, and our shared need for understanding. It has given us a chance to step away from the wall that has prevented us from seeing the bigger picture, and dream bigger dreams.

I have missed the excitement and action of being in court. I have missed the cut and thrust of trials and the pace of my days. I am counting the days until I am back. But, I am also grateful for the fact that as a justice system we have had an opportunity to re-shape what we do, and to do it better.

I am grateful for the time I have had to look through other windows.

- Ruth Roberts