The jury is still out on the benefits of justice by ZoomJun 14th 2020IT WAS BY digital video shared in May that global attention first turned to the killing of George Floyd. In a striking parallel, it was again by video that Derek Chauvin, the white police officer filmed kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, made his first appearance in court as a murder suspect. Handcuffed and in an orange jumpsuit, with a protective mask over his mouth, the 44-year-old cop was beamed into Hennepin County court in Minneapolis on June 8th for around 15 minutes from a maximum-security prison. From there, through the lens of a digital video camera, Mr Chauvin looked on as a judge told him his bail would be set for at least $1m.The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts around the globe to modernise with unprecedented haste. America’s covid-19 stimulus package includes a provision for federal judges to use teleconferencing. Its Supreme Court conducted hearings by telephone for the first time. India’s Supreme Court began hearing all cases on an app called Vidyo on March 23rd. Spain held its first internet trial in May. Britain’s Supreme Court changed its rules to require all evidence to be submitted digitally. A branch of government built on precedent is now procedurally breaking it. The speed with which it is doing so means the effects are hard to predict but certain to reshape the judicial system, even after covid-19 has subsided.Legal reformers have long advocated digitisation. Technology can make justice cheaper and more accessible, streamlining systems already stretched to their limits. Hearings in digital conference rooms can be easier to attend than physical ones for reporters covering the courts. Remote proceedings also prevent the spread of disease. The best way to get people into otherwise packed courtrooms without the risk of contagion is by video link. Although speaking on services such as Zoom feels awkward, some research has shown that digital platforms have little effect on verdicts. Defendants in a simulated criminal trial who testified on camera in a recent Australian study were no more likely to be found guilty than those who appeared beside their lawyers in court.But such technology is untested at scale. Research so far on its impact has been inconclusive. Slow internet speeds, bad hardware and confusing software can negate the time and expense supposedly saved. Human-rights advocates argue that delivering harsh sentences remotely is “inhumane”—if society is going to condemn someone to death, it should have the courage to do it face to face. Indeed, in May a man in Singapore received his death sentence (for drug smuggling) by Zoom.Further, digital justice threatens to upend the ancient understanding that courts should be open to the public. Spectators remind courts that their decisions have bearing on society. Video access could make courtrooms more accessible by extending the number of people who might attend from a few dozen to thousands or more. But as internet users have discovered over the past decade, the web is easy to wall off. Courts could block access with passwords and private Zoom sessions, or leave proceedings open but difficult to join, on hard-to-find web pages. So video justice needs rules ensuring some public scrutiny.For legal systems, the pandemic has amounted to an unexpected, months-long experiment into digital procedure. Richard Susskind, author of “Online Courts and the Future of Justice”, said at a recent British parliamentary committee meeting that the adoption of remote hearings around the world has for the first time produced a significant amount of data for researchers. Both civil-law and common-law countries appear to be adopting remote courts at similar rates, he says. Countries with a greater openness to alternative dispute-resolution processes, such as mediation or conciliation, may be more open to new technologies.Initial findings suggest a divergence between the branches of the justice system. Civil cases—those without juries—appear to transfer easily to cyberspace. On June 5th Britain’s Civil Justice Council published a report that surveyed more than 1,000 lawyers, journalists and members of the public who had taken part in remote civil cases since mid-March. Some 71.5% of respondents said they had had a positive or very positive experience with remote hearings.Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that participants in family courts have been less positive. In Britain judges have spoken out about the difficulty of handling delicate matters such as child custody remotely. Family-court justices often speak directly with lay participants at the end of trials to explain their decisions. The internet curtails opportunities to offer empathy outside a hearing’s regular formalities. In criminal courts, meanwhile, the need for juries has posed big challenges. It would be difficult to ensure the impartiality of jurors logging in from their kitchen tables, where they could be influenced by outsiders.As countries relax social-distancing restrictions, courts may face new and potentially even more difficult questions. Young demonstrators newly alive to the inequities of the justice system—its great costs, its slowness, its procedural complexities and robed formalities often alien to those of humbler backgrounds—may bring greater scrutiny to courts. Many have amassed backlogs of cases put on pause during the pandemic. To cope, authorities may have to keep more of the emergency digital measures than they might have imagined.Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. 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