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Weekend Woman: Beirut explosion + Virtual Courtrooms


Sara Hemrajani, who has written so many great film reviews for LawyersLife has started this fantastic news digest : Deep Dive.

Hello and welcome!

Do you feel like you’re processing a decade’s worth of news every few days? Rest assured that you’re not alone. Hopefully Deep Dive will help explain the key topics and offer insights on issues beyond the headlines.

Stay healthy,
Sara x

A CITY IN MOURNING

Beirutis are back on the streets to protest against the national government’s negligence and incompetence.

Residents in the Lebanese capital are heartbroken and furious about Tuesday’s deadly blast in the city’s port. The explosion killed at least 150 people, damaged homes and neighbourhoods, and destroyed a giant grain silo. By most accounts, this tragedy was completely avoidable.

Sadly, millions of Lebanese are familiar with rampant corruption and economic mismanagement. This disillusionment triggered demonstrations last October and the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Then, Covid-19 halted efforts to initiate dialogue and reforms.

As the international community rallies to help out, there are pleas from Lebanese netizens to send donations to NGOs on the ground to ensure that aid money won’t line the pockets of politicians.

Exploring the damage after the blast (BBC News – 6 August)
TECH PROXY WAR

Washington is dialling up the pressure on China and its homegrown corporations.

On Friday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, and some of her cabinet members for implementing policies “aimed at curbing freedom of expression…and democratic processes”. Lam chose to post her response on Facebook, ironically.

Yet that announcement was almost drowned out by the cacophony surrounding President Trump’s latest executive orders: two vaguely worded instructions to limit US transactions with the Chinese owners of WeChat (Tencent) and TikTok (ByteDance) from mid-September.

Although the headlines screamed “ban”, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and confusion about the reach of Trump’s orders. Plus, while data privacy is undoubtedly a significant security matter, it’s poor form for the world’s largest economy to ignore due process or fail to provide clarity. For instance, a reporter had to specifically ask whether gaming smash Fortnite would be safe since Tencent is a major stakeholder in the company behind it (don’t worry, Fortnite won’t be targeted, FYI).

As things stand, tech analysts say Apple’s iPhone sales in China could tank if WeChat is eventually blocked. Also, the White House’s move will complicate Microsoft’s plan to buy TikTok – but Facebook could gain as it tries to lure the app’s top creators to its rival Instagram feature, Reels.

THE VIRTUAL COURTROOM

Like many professionals, lawyers and judges around the world were forced to switch gears when the Covid-19 crisis emerged. e.g. 90% of hearings in England and Wales used audio or video technology in April rather than relying on face-to-face communications.

I asked Rehna Azim, a family law barrister in England, about the impact of the coronavirus on her routine and career.

Q. What are the main ways in which the pandemic affected your job? Is it possible to be a fully virtual barrister?

I haven’t travelled to court or conducted a case in a physical courtroom for months now. But I’ve been busier than ever with remote hearings in virtual courts. In the first couple of weeks, while the legal system was coming to terms with the concept of virtual justice, most of my hearings were done by telephone. Although this process was easy and I could be in my pyjamas (if I wished), it did feel odd to be representing clients I couldn’t see and responding to judges without being aware of their facial expressions – whether it’s seeing them raise their eyebrows at my submissions or the occasional nod of approval at a persuasive point. It was also incredibly tiring focusing for long periods on what was being said without any visual stimulation.

Soon, however, the hearings shifted to video, via Skype, Microsoft Teams etc. This meant having to dress formally – though some colleagues admitted to looking legal only from the waist up! And it meant being able to see clients and colleagues as well as the judge and court staff, which made things seem ‘normal’, even if people did frequently freeze in the middle of a sentence with an unfortunate facial expression. Again, the level of concentration required was intense and staring at a screen for hours and hours proved to be exhausting. There also had to be a certain degree of dexterity in managing several devices as you spoke into one screen, looked at the case papers on another and took frantic email messages on yet a third.

Q. Given the highly sensitive and personal nature of family law, what steps did you and your colleagues take to ensure you could keep working with your clients?

The big issue was finding a platform that was totally confidential. Except for a handful of reported mishaps, how the court system has responded to this unprecedented way of dispensing injustice has been impressive.

However, it’s been challenging, at times, representing lay clients in our brave new virtual world. Many family law clients are vulnerable, they’re in crisis and dealing publicly with the most private of matters in their lives. At court, you can offer them comfort, take instructions in person and generally be a reassuring presence. This hasn’t been possible in remote hearings, other than through the impersonal means of email and telephone. As lockdown restrictions begin to loosen, more and more courts have started ‘hybrid’ hearings, which have allowed clients to attend court with their lawyers while the other parties attend remotely.

Q. What key lesson have you learned from this experience? Has your view on practising law changed?

I’d say that something has been confirmed for me rather than it coming out of the blue. I realised how much, as a barrister, I’m expected to push myself from very early in the morning until very late at night, day after day. But now I actually get a full day with both work and pleasure. By cutting out the commute and public transport mess, I’ve been able to pursue a regular regime of exercise, meditation practice and healthy eating, and still have time for hobbies. I’ve listened to music albums that I hadn’t been able to catch up on, read for pleasure and just genuinely experienced proper work-life balance.​

For more information, you can check out Rehna’s lifestyle blog – http://www.itsalawyerslife.com

SMUGGLING SPIKE

The pandemic is keeping Hong Kong’s customs officers on their toes. The territory is a hot spot for contraband trade due to its strategic location – but lockdown rules have inspired gangs to get creative with their export/import business.

As a result of tight restrictions on air travel and land border crossings, smugglers are increasingly taking to the sea to transport their cargo. Speedboats, fishing boats and barges are all being used to carry millions of dollars worth of products, including animal skins, cigarettes and cosmetics.

According to recent figures, the total value of goods seized in maritime cases so far this year is already 73% higher than for the whole of 2019!

On Monday, HK’s Customs and Excise Department found a huge cache of top-shelf alcohol, cigars and dried shark fins, among other items, in a boat heading to mainland China. Syndicates operating there want to evade hefty taxes and tariffs.

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