Barristers take cues from NIDA in online courts
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Barristers take cues from NIDA in online courts

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When the coronavirus pandemic sees video conferences replace the cut and thrust of the courtroom, what is a barrister to do? Call the National Institute of Dramatic Art for tips about performing on camera.

The NSW and Victorian bar associations have both held interactive training sessions with NIDA in recent weeks, as part of a suite of measures aimed at helping barristers adapt to virtual hearings after the courts moved swiftly to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in March.

Victorian barrister Kat Brazenor with her virtual court set-up in Melbourne.

Victorian barrister Kat Brazenor with her virtual court set-up in Melbourne.Credit:Jennifer MacDonald

The NSW Bar was first out of the blocks with a two-hour workshop on June 17, while Victorian barristers tapped into NIDA's expertise about treading the (virtual) boards on Monday.

Sydney barrister Michael McHugh, SC, attended the workshop and has appeared online in a range of hearings, including appeals and in trials cross-examining witnesses.

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"When I walk into a courtroom, I am completely at home. I live there; I love it," he said.

"When I'm sitting at home with my jeans on and a bar jacket and jabot [a white bib worn by barristers], it's very different."

The session covered a range of skills from vocal and breathing exercises to lighting, head position, and minimising background distractions. Even the torch on a mobile phone could be used to improve lighting, he said.

Mr McHugh, the senior vice-president of the NSW Bar Association, said it was important to engage with each person in court. In a virtual court, looking into the centre of the screen mattered.

Victorian barrister Kat Brazenor said the workshop helped make barristers "acutely aware of the fact that we are now operating in a much more condensed field of view".

There was "great value" in learning from actors, who were "completely well-versed in being able to play to this small square" on screen, she said.

Ms Brazenor has appeared remotely in cases in the Supreme and Federal courts, and when acting for the state of Victoria in the bushfire royal commission.

Kat Brazenor's set-up in chambers includes lighting for courtroom appearances and multiple devices including a computer, phone and iPad.

Kat Brazenor's set-up in chambers includes lighting for courtroom appearances and multiple devices including a computer, phone and iPad.Credit:Jennifer MacDonald

Each forum uses a different online platform: the royal commission uses BlueJeans while the Federal Court favours Microsoft Teams.

"I have been maintaining a virtual practice from my home since March now," Ms Brazenor said.

"Almost overnight, and that really isn't hyperbole, all of my cases suddenly became online."

She is well-equipped for virtual hearings, including professional lighting, a foldable screen to create a neutral backdrop, a headset and microphone, and a range of digital devices.

Hosting the NIDA workshop for barristers was the brainchild of a senior NSW Bar Association staff member with a long-term association with the institute.

The Victorian Bar Association has run almost 50 professional development sessions for members since April, most on adapting to COVID-19. There are 2200 barristers in Victoria; the sessions have attracted 3500 participants.

Victorian Bar Association chief executive Katherine Lorenz said the sessions were aimed at up-skilling barristers in a digital environment, and keeping them informed of sometimes-daily changes in court procedure.

Moving from courtrooms to online "is like the difference between stage and screen", Ms Lorenz said, and "every little move you make on video is seen".

Federal Court Justice Nye Perram said in May the swift move to online courts has been a remarkable achievement.

"I doubt that what has been achieved in the past eight weeks could have been achieved in 10 years under normal circumstances," he said.

The NSW Supreme Court has used YouTube to stream some high-profile hearings, while the Victorian Supreme Court streamed the defamation battle between Melbourne identity Mick Gatto and the ABC on its website this month. The Gatto trial attracted a legion of interstate observers, including curious lawyers.

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