March 4th, 2021
Over the course of almost a year of Covid-19, Ontario’s court system has made a monumental shift from in-person hearings and trials to virtual appearances. While in the summer of 2020 most of the province’s courts were shut down or operating at very limited capacity, those capacity issues have since been addressed through the use of videoconferencing technology, such as Zoom, to replace in person courtrooms and case conferences. The shift to remote hearings in Ontario and abroad has allowed the judicial system to continue to function throughout the fluctuating Covid-19 lockdowns and has even led to some very amusing videos of lawyers struggling with videoconferencing technology.
However, the recent hijacking of a Ontario Superior Court Zoom hearing shows that these new tools are fraught with their own perils. On February 23, 2021, a Zoom hearing in the matter of Donovan v Waterloo Regional Police Services Board et al. was interrupted by unidentified “zoom bombers”. The hearing was temporarily cut short by Justice Bielby as the interlopers used Zoom’s share screen function to display pornographic imagery and hate symbols, disrupting the hearing. Court staff were able to eventually restore order following a break in proceedings, but the temporary chaos illustrates some of the unique dangers of relying on online courtrooms.
The issue in this case seems to have arisen when one of the parties posted the private Zoom hearing invitation link on her social media profile and provided it to the media. The threat of this kind of interference in zoom calls has been the subject of discussion since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ontario courts have mostly avoided these sorts of attacks by making strategic decisions about how to balance virtual courtroom security with the open court principle.
Most Ontario courts seem have opted to err on the side of caution and limit public access to Zoom hearings. The Ontario Court of Appeal requires that members of the public or media send requests to the court’s registrar via email 48 hours in advance in order to be granted access to hearings. The Superior Court likewise requires that members of the public or media submit requests to view proceedings via email in advance of the proceeding, though it does not fix as specific a timeline.
Regardless of whether or not members of the public have requested access to a hearing, counsel can take certain common-sense steps to help keep Zoom hearings secure. These include:
- Ensuring that Zoom hearings are password protected and feature a waiting room from which attendees must be admitted wherever possible.
- Keeping the Zoom hearing Meeting ID, Access Link, and Password secure and not sharing them publicly.
- Only sharing Zoom hearing access information with clients, staff, and other counsel who intend to attend the hearing.
- Advising clients not to share the Zoom hearing Meeting ID, Access Link, or Password with anyone or on any social media sites.
- Only accessing Zoom hearings over secure internet connections.