A bizarre new court protocol for sentencing military criminals over Zoom includes instructions for the ceremonial carrying of a laptop and webcam in and out of the courtroom.
In no fewer than 28 bullet points the UK’s Military Court Service, ( MCS) which deals with officers, soldiers, sailors and airmen accused of crimes, has set out its protocol for using videoconferencing to sentence guilty military lawbreakers.
According to the MCS, lawyers and military personnel must mute their microphones before the judge “enters” the virtual Zoom courtroom, while administrators must phone each other with formal warnings before the judge is allowed to connect.
The formal document, issued earlier this week by the MCS, is a very strange mashup of the British military and court systems’ love of pomp and circumstance together with modern technology.
Devised for a court setup where the judge and board are physically present in the courtroom while prosecuting and defending legal teams connect remotely, the guidance is a bizarre snapshot of the coronavirus era’s clash between traditional in-person processes and new video-enabled remote working.
Officers sitting on a court martial board, which is similar to a jury but consists of between three and seven commissioned officers and warrant officers, must have mobile phones ready in case Zoom stops working halfway through the hearing. A courtroom administrator then has to carry the judge’s laptop and webcam around the physical courtroom so each member of the board can introduce themselves; and then ceremonially carry the laptop out of the courtroom (video and audio muted, natch) while the judge and board decide what sentence to hand down.
Once the judge and the officers reach a decision, the judge texts the Carrier of the Laptop and Webcam – who returns with the devices and places them in front of the president of the board (foreman of the jury, in civvy-speak) who passes the sentence.
“No other party should terminate the call until requested to do so by a member of MCS Staff in order to allow for any administrative matters to be dealt with,” warns the formal guidance document, issued by His Honour Judge Blackett, who holds the top military legal post of Judge Advocate-General.
The Register contrasts this palaver with the civil division of the High Court, which has been successfully using Zoom (and all the other rival platforms that spring to mind, too) since the start of the pandemic. In the civil court everyone connects around 10 minutes before the hearing starts; the judge connects at the precise start time to begin proceedings; and everything just goes from there as normal.
Civilian criminal courts differ somewhat, with judges still sitting in courtrooms but often with a single camera to go between judge, lawyers in court and defendants connecting remotely. This way of working often fails, as revealed by campaign group the Transparency Project.
Neither in criminal nor civil courts is a member of court staff required to carry the judge’s laptop in and out of the room like the Crown Jewels during a royal coronation.
Zoom has been adopted by courts around the world as one of a number of readily available off-the-shelf videoconferencing technologies. In one jarringly unsettling example it was used in Singapore last month to pass a death sentence on a heroin dealer.