Courts across Brazil increase productivity during coronavirus outbreak
Appeals court judge Maria Teresa Gazineu was about to close another hearing session with her colleagues at Rio de Janeiro’s state court – Brazil’s second-biggest – when she spoke to Latin Lawyer about the full adoption of electronic systems allowing the hearings to be held completely online.
Gazineu’s court handles all types of cases but criminal, ranging from consumer liability matters to family disagreements. As an appeals court, a team of three judges assess matters case by case, give lawyers representing different parties an opportunity to be heard and rule on each case by voting. With all physical hearings being cancelled by the covid-19 crisis, the team is exclusively using the court’s electronic platform. Contrary to what might be expected, the process is faster and the judges are able to rule on more cases a week than before.
“There has been no change in quality. We give all parties the same opportunity to have their say and I make myself available to lawyers too. But the difference is that the system allows us to leave all cases open, so my colleagues and I have more time to discuss our views and give a final decision at the end of the session,” Gazineu says. As a result, the team has been able to increase productivity. In a few cases — six out of the 40 handled by the team over the last week — lawyers requested a physical hearing, which will delay the process until the quarantine policies are relaxed. But the great majority has adapted to the fully electronic system.
The increase in productivity felt by the Rio de Janeiro judge is far from an exception. A survey conducted by Siqueira Castro Advogados and shared with Latin Lawyer earlier this week, which monitors courts all over Brazil in real time, reveals that courts continue operating with great capacity. Although there is no comparative evidence yet to pre-quarantine levels, the survey shows that courts have quickly adapted, with all state courts reporting having handled more than 50,000 processes each over the last month. For example, courts in states like São Paulo, Paraná, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Minas Gerais have handled more than 200,000 acts of processes each during this period.
Despite the lack of comparative statistics, the lawyers responsible for compiling the data believe the high number of processes show an increase in productivity during the crisis spurred by the use of technology.
Siqueira Castro partner Ana Cristina Robortella, who co-authored the survey, says she is impressed by courts' adaptability across the country, not only those based in rich states like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. As an example, she mentions a recent case of a court in Boa Vista, in the state of Pará, north of Brazil, which held a conciliation hearing where the judges created a WhatsApp group conversation between the parties to find a solution to the dispute. To facilitate hearings the National Counsel of Justice (CNJ) has enabled videoconferences for courts, but judges have not been timid to use other tools such as Zoom, Skype, Google Hang Out and WhatsApp to get in touch with dispute parties. In some cases, judges have asked lawyers to record short videos to be sent via WhatsApp, so their cases can be presented. “We cannot say if all courts have been able to take these measures, but the great majority are doing everything they can to adapt and hold hearings and court sessions online,” Robortella says.
Even more surprisingly, the courts have not only been able to maintain services, but they are reporting productivity gains. Siqueira Castro’s Taylise Seixas, who also co-authored the survey, says once physical audiences got out of the way, judges could concentrate on the pile of electronic processes they need to handle, resulting in an overall increase in the number of rulings. “The quantity of decisions published recently is clear evidence that the courts are not only functioning, but they have also been able to keep a great level of focus on their work,” she says.
Electronic processes are not a novelty in Brazilian tribunals, but Seixas says the day-to-day activity at courts was often time-consuming and there was certain resistance to fully adopt new technologies to speed up processes. She believes that the combination of tools allowing for remote working, which became compulsory with the adoption of quarantine policies during the second half of March, and the necessity to focus only on electronic cases prompted the productivity gain. The reason for this, Seixas explains, lies in that there are no legal hurdles stopping the use of electronic tools to handle court processes. Along with that, the covid-19 outbreak made the authorities, which oversee the legal system, issue several new norms and regulations allowing remote working not only for judges, but for civil servants within the legal system too. “Some were already working remotely, but the current situation made this available and compulsory to everybody,” she says.
In the Rio court, Gazineu, who is working from her home in the city of Petrópolis, some 70 kilometres from Rio de Janeiro, believes changes are going to remain after the crisis. “The legal system is traditionalist, but it was pressed to find solutions to continue operating during the pandemic and the IT teams had to rush to allow access to everybody,” she says. “Although electronic processes were available, many did not see working from home with good eyes, especially when it comes to court staff. This changed overnight and I believe this is for the good,” Gazineu adds.
Law firms can also benefit from the mainstream adoption of online tools. Siqueira Castro, as many other firms do, relies on local correspondents to attend hearings in courts in remote parts of Brazil. Using technology, Robortella says she recently represented her client remotely, without using a correspondent. She believes this will become increasingly available as those courts adopt and get used to digital systems. “We firmly believe we are going to be able to save considerably by not having to rely on correspondents,” she says.
Seixas is also enthusiastic about the changes as technology enables a faster way to conduct cases. “We want the return of human contact, live conversation and hugs, but there is a lot of improvements in the working relationship which we don’t want to undo, and we hope some changes are here for good,” she says.