Working virtually is liberating

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Despite the many downsides brought by the lockdown, the most important upside is probably the fact that it has liberated us from the old 8 to 5 routine – being chained to the workplace, or looking for parking to attend to business obligations outside of the office.

Since the start of the lockdown on 27 March 2020, much progress has been made in this “liberation struggle” as we started embracing a number of free virtual platforms to get on with the job without compromising our own or the safety of others.

On the 7th May 2020, two important milestones were added to the progress of this liberation struggle.

The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, liberated municipalities when she issued amended directives relating to the way in which municipalities would have to work until the end of lockdown.

In terms of these directives the many face-to-face meetings become something of the past because, from now on “all meetings of councils, tribunals and entities, are therefore required to be hosted through virtual platforms such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing. Communities should also be consulted using media platforms and other related alternative methods of consultation, instead of contact meetings.”

On the same day, 7 May 2020, the Labour Court heard an urgent application brought by NUMSA on behalf of its members who faced being retrenched from SAA as the embattled airline continued to face an uncertain future while a business rescue operation got underway.

The judgment recorded that the matter was heard on via Zoom by Van Niekerk J and handed down “electronically by circulation to the parties’ legal representatives by email … The date and time for hand-down is deemed to be 14h00 on 8 May 2020.”

This was not the first time that our courts broke with tradition by hearing a matter when parties were not physically present in the courtroom – or even in the country.

In the matter of MK v Transnet Ltd t/a Portnet (2018) the witness was in Montenegro. Her son had passed away in a collision while in South Africa on business. She sought compensation for the loss of support her son had provided on a monthly basis.

The application to testify remotely was based on the fact that plaintiff was too frail to travel to South Africa. Before deciding to allow her to testify in this manner, the judge weighed a number of factors other than the costs she would have to incur to travel to Durban in order to testify in person. The court had regard to the fact that she was of an advanced age, and suffered from a serious illness. Further to that, the respondent would not be prejudiced by a remote appearance as the plaintiff would be visible to all while testifying and being cross-examined under oath.

By allowing her to testify through a video link, the court was able to deal with the application in a convenient, efficient, cost-effective and expeditious manner.

What was a novelty in 2018, is fast becoming the new normal way of resolving disputes, as we saw in the NUMSA v SAA matter.

Do you have any reason not to embrace the liberation of virtual hearings which are convenient, fair, and cost-effective?  All the panellists at Aequitate have done so already!