Zoom Trial Doomed: McDermott Will & Emery reports itself to the SRA

August 31, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

U.S firm McDermott Will & Emery reports itself to the SRA after a high-profile libel trial was live streamed internationally on Zoom in breach of the judge’s express orders.

What does this mean?

Solicitors from US-based McDermott Will & Emery (MWE) had been referred to the divisional court for an urgent hearing after breaching professional standards during a trial. MWE was representing a Russian businessman, Aleksej Gubarev, who was suing ex-MI6 man Christopher Steele over a dossier about Donald Trump’s alleged links to Russia. A Zoom link to the trial ended up being shared with seven other individuals including the client’s family, even though the trial judge ordered the trial not to be live streamed. Mr Justice Warby had noticed the misconduct on the third day of the trial which was eventually live streamed to individuals in the US, Cyprus and Russia without the court’s permission. MWE reported itself and two partners to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for a disciplinary hearing which had been conducted before Dame Victoria Sharp and Mrs Justice Andrews.

What's the big picture effect?

MWE’s conduct during the trial has come under serious scrutiny. In the disciplinary judgement Sharp highlighted how MWE demonstrated a “casual attitude” towards court orders. She also pointed out an apparent lack of engagement with the seriousness of the breach by the solicitors until the judge emphasised it. It was also noted that before the proceedings began last month, MWE had made a series of demands to the court about access to hearing rooms, asking for a second courtroom to be reserved for the public and the press. In a court order, Judge Warby permitted video and audio recordings of the hearing to be transmitted to a second courtroom, but otherwise made it clear that live streaming was prohibited. 

The misconduct breached section 41 of  the Criminal Justice Act 1925 (the ban on taking photographs in court), and/or section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (ban on sound recordings), and/or the judge’s direct order. With the increased use of virtual communication, the court’s ability to maintain order has been substantially diminished. Correspondingly, this has enhanced the opportunity for information to be disseminated to other jurisdictions via social media. Other examples of misconduct include people sharing their screens, playing music and displaying inappropriate behaviour. Furthermore, Zoom’s vulnerability to hackers (“Zoombombers”), lack of end-to-end encryption and third party data sharing practices have raised suspicions as to its use for confidential matters such as court hearings. Read more about Zoom’s security risks here. 

As remote hearings become the “new normal”, both the courts and law firms must equip themselves with sophisticated cybersecurity measures to uphold confidentiality and the credibility of the legal system. It is crucial that law firms internalise the effective use of technology in their remote working policies so that legal professional standards are maintained without compromising cybersecurity. In the tech market, there still remains a pressing need for a high-security communication software to be developed, suitable for highly sensitive matters to be completed remotely.

Report written by Selin Alagoun

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