Should we expect court proceedings to be conducted on Russia using Skype and similar applications?

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The coronavirus epidemic is compelling people worldwide to be flexible and to adapt quickly to dramatic changes in circumstances.

In view of the extended period of non-working days under the Russian President's Decree dated 2 April 2020, we expect a subsequent suspension of the work of the courts to some degree. For the time being, there have been no official clarifications in April from the Russian Supreme Court regarding the working procedures of state commercial courts and courts of general jurisdiction. At present, the restriction introduced by Resolution No. 808 of the Plenum dated 18 March 2020 is in effect and it will probably be extended. However, the majority of state commercial courts have already begun to publish on their websites clarifications on the procedure for their work during the non-working days.

For now, courts are announcing a restricted regime for their work until 30 April 2020 but it cannot be excluded that such regime will subsequently be extended. This may result in a need to shift to online jurisprudence in order to safeguard access to justice and at the same time protect the health and security of judges, court employees, the parties to court proceedings and their representatives.

In global practice, one is already starting to witness the holding of court hearings online using such applications as Skype and Zoom.

As an example, in the UK certain hearings are now being conducted by video-link (from prisons and certain police stations). In view of the epidemic, the Lord Chief Justice has called on lawyers to use various applications for establishing a video-link (Zoom, Microsoft Teams and so on), since specialised software has yet to be developed.[1]

In the USA, many courts have shifted to using Skype to consider cases that cannot be postponed, referring to this as a virtual courtroom[2]. Further, in a number of cases telephone calls are being used, for example in the United States Bankruptcy Court[3] or in certain courts in Texas[4].

In the Federal Court of Australia, an ‘e-court forum’ service has been functioning since 2001. This is a virtual courtroom and it allows parties to take part in online judicial proceedings personally or through their representatives. The court proceedings take place under the standard procedure, but at the same timetime, there is no need[E.1] for either the judge or the parties to attend the courtroom in person. Using the service in question, a court can receive documents filed by the parties and sworn witness statements in writing, give instructions to the parties, and hand down orders and directions online. At the same time, the parties can contact the court at a time that suits them (taking account of all deadlines and other requirements established by the judges).

What about Russia?

At present, there is at least one known case of a court hearing being held by video-link using WhatsApp. On 30 March 2020, a city court in Sverdlovsk Region conducted a court hearing in this way in an administrative offence case[5]. However, this example is an exception since courts are not for the time being ready on either a statutory or a technical level to hold hearings online.

At the same time, certain other state bodies have already begun to incorporate such a format into their work. For example, on 1 April 2020, the Directorate of the Federal Antimonopoly Service for the city of Moscow shifted to “remote consideration of appeals” using Rostelecom's special Web-Videoconference portal. Detailed technical instructions that allow for participation in the consideration of appeals has been published on the Directorate's website[6].

What to think about, what to do

At present, it is impossible to take part in a court hearing without leaving home. However, such a legislative initiative has already been discussed: members of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament) have already drawn up a draft law concerning the holding of court hearings by video-link[7]. For now, it is unclear how the Russian Government and the Russian Supreme Court will react to the proposal. They have received a set of draft legislative amendments but is the Russian judicial system ready as a matter of principle for such new developments and is there the technical possibility to implement them? Nevertheless, the likelihood of such amendments being adopted cannot be excluded, bearing in mind that a company needs access to justice and also in view of the potentially high workload for the judicial system once the non-working days and self-isolation regime have finished.

Pepeliaev Group's lawyers are continuously monitoring the legislative amendments that are taking place and are ready to offer integrated legal support during judicial proceedings.

[E.1]There is a typo in the original. It should be 'нет необходимостИ"

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