The guffaws and gaffes of online court in Victoria: a highlight reel

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Oh, the sweet delights of online court in COVID-19.

QCs crunching on potato chips with the microphone on, a barrister spotted smoking an old-school tobacco pipe on camera, accidental ‘unmutes’ at inopportune times and may space be carved-out in the annals for all those who forgot to change their screen names before logging on to a hearing.

Barrister Luke Barker and his Tahitian beach background.

As vaccination rates continue to climb and Victorian courts prepare to re-open to more in-person hearings, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on the lighter moments of almost two years of online court hearings.

Melbourne barrister Luke Barker, known to log-on with a picture of a Tahitian beach as his Zoom background, says the lack of a daily commute and wearing casual clothes below-the-waist has been “terribly appealing”.

“I have not minded the online court experience at all,” he says.

Like the lawyer who appeared in a Texas court with a filter that made him look like a cat – “I’m here, live. I’m not a cat,” the lawyer insisted – Barker’s Tahitian theme began after forgetting to change his Zoom background after online drinks with friends of a weekend.

“I commenced appearing in court with gentle waves lapping bright white sand behind me. The presiding judge and prosecutor liked the ambience it brought,” Barker says.

Melbourne’s court reporters have covered their beat online for most of the pandemic and have witnessed many a mishap on the web.

“One very highly regarded QC forgot that his camera and mic were on and decided to lay on the couch and hoe into a bag of chips,” one journalist said.

“The crunching was profound.”

The Age’s court reporter Adam Cooper recalls a woman’s camera shaking so violently during a case that it looked like she was having a fit until it became clear she was walking around her living room.

“I have mixed feelings about online court,” Cooper says.

“They are convenient to watch for short administrative hearings, but it’s hard to capture the atmosphere of jury verdicts or when victim impact statements are being read.”

Another journalist reported watching a male barrister of a certain age lighting a tobacco pipe not once, but twice, during an inquest. And who can forget Richard Edney being called a “f—wit” by someone mid-way through the defence lawyer’s cross-examination?

Edney’s call for the person to unmask themselves and apologise were left unanswered.

The late Australian actor Heath Ledger in the film ‘Two Hands’.

Online court is not new for a profession that has facilitated witnesses to give video evidence into the courtroom for years.

In its early days, Megan Tittensor, SC, remembers tipstaff shortly before a Supreme Court hearing started explaining to a witness on video-link how the evidence would work.

Ms Tittensor had been talking to a colleague at the bar table about a bank robbery scene from the Heath Ledger film Two Hands, and brought the DVD in to play on her laptop during a break. The laptop sat next to the microphones on the bar table. She hit play.

The judge’s tip staff, talking through the same microphones, had just told the witness on the video-link to “just do what I say” when the next thing that came screaming through the court’s speakers was “Get on the f—ing floor!” The witness on the link hit the ground.

“It was exquisite timing. Thankfully the judge wasn’t on the bench yet,” the silk said.

And as for one of most important lessons from running a trial virtually, barrister Michael FitzGerald says if the court needs to shift from WebEx (the court’s preferred video conferencing platform) to Zoom at short notice, “double-check that your kids haven’t reset your screen name to anything inappropriate the night before”.

And the alert that popped up when FitzGerald logged on?

“Entirely Sane Piglets has entered the chat.”

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