Ottawa, June 10: After calling to order the Supreme Court of Canada’s first virtual hearing, held over Zoom videoconferencing because of pandemic restrictions, Chief Justice Richard Wagner warned, “Nothing is perfect the first time.”
Within minutes, his pronouncement proved prophetic.
Just after Stephen Hamilton, lawyer for the appellant, began his arguments from his office computer, his image froze; his voice fell mute. Then he disappeared.
It took a moment for everyone to realise what had happened. Justices reached forward, presumably playing with computer settings to see if the problem was on their end. After an awkward wait, a voice came over the computer. “I recommend we take a break.”
Before the technical glitch, and the meat and potatoes of the case, likely of interest only to the keenest observers of property law and those with an interest in the B.C. development fighting over parking spaces, Wagner opened Tuesday’s proceeding with a hugely human address, The Guardian, Canada reported.
“On a more usual day, we would be in the courtroom in Ottawa and I would introduce the case and counsel. But as we all are very much aware, this is not a usual day and these are not usual times,” Wagner said.
“There will be hiccups and maybe even unexpected visits by children and pets. This is OK. There are things that are beyond our control — like the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept us all at home and sickened or taken away so many Canadians, possibly even your own loved ones. We are adapting, but nothing is perfect the first time. Just remember that we are here for your arguments, not the angle of your camera or your facility with the mute button. We will get through this hearing, just as we will get through this pandemic. We are adapting, but nothing is perfect the first time.”
The nine justices of the Supreme Court separately appeared, in their usual black robes and white bands, from their offices and homes. They each used the same virtual background, a photo of the main courtroom on the ground floor of its building in Ottawa.
The virtual background gave some judges a ghostly appearance, and when they moved quickly glimpses of their real background peeked through. When Justice Russell Brown waved his hands, his shoulders disappeared like some Hollywood tear in the matrix.
Another glitch came later in the hearing, when Wes McMillan, lawyer for an intervenor, lost his video feed and had to make his case by voice only, over the phone.
While it is not a world’s first, the virtual hearing is believed to be the first remote court hearing with simultaneous translation, as it was broadcast in both official languages.
Over weeks leading up to Tuesday’s debut, the court held numerous dry runs and consulted on security protocols.
The case being argued in this modest moment in legal history is called Owners, Strata Plan LMS 3905 v. Crystal Square Parking Corporation, a dispute over parking spaces in Burnaby, B.C.
There are three more cases scheduled to be heard by the court virtually this week, one each day.