As Thailand deals with a new surge in COVID-19 infections, the Thai judiciary has taken additional steps to facilitate remote hearings and court procedures. These steps are laid out in four Notifications of the Office of the Judiciary on Criteria, Methods and Conditions Relating to the Electronic Court Procedures in the Pandemic of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), issued between April 9 and May 5, 2021. The measures under these notifications, which are not meant to apply beyond the pandemic, are designed to allow lawyers and witnesses to carry out their duties remotely.
Notifications 1-3 (dated April 9, 16, and 26) apply to proceedings such as requests for appointment of an estate administrator, declaration of a missing person, establishment of guardianship and curatorship, petitions without an objecting party, civil cases without any counter arguments (or presence of a defendant in consumer cases), and other straightforward cases (referred to in the notifications as “petty and uncomplicated” cases). Video calling through the LINE application is typically used for carrying out these cases. Parties can present their ID card and original documents virtually by just showing it to the camera.
Notification 4 (dated May 5) allows all other types of civil cases to be conducted by electronic means. The parties can request that a hearing be conducted on Google Meet or Cisco Webex. The parties must provide information about their telecommunications network and provider, communications devices, and the venue where the parties or witnesses will be present while using the system. Should the court grant the request and the remote hearing go ahead, the visual and audio signals of the parties or witnesses participating in the proceedings from an outside venue will be displayed openly in the courtroom. The adjudicating judges and clerks will still be present in the courtroom itself.
These notifications are not the first guidance issued by the judiciary on carrying out hearings electronically, which can be a more convenient and affordable option for the parties involved. The possibility of using remote technology (other than mail, fax, and email) was introduced in 2013 by video conferencing regulations from the President of the Supreme Court. These regulations, which applied to both civil and criminal cases, allowed for video conferencing between the adjudicating court and prisons, police stations, or other courts. This eliminated the need to send cases to other courts across the country, and resulted in a significant drop in the daily transfer of accused persons from prisons to courts.
The next development came in 2017, when the President of the Supreme Court issued regulations on electronic procedural rules that aimed to reduce expenses as well as the need for people to physically travel to the courts. Three new means of communication with the court were introduced for pleadings, petitions, requests, statements and certain other documents: an e-filing system, the Court Integral Online Service (CIOS) for sending and receiving documents, and an e-notice system.
In 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Thailand, the Regulation of the President of the Supreme Court on the Electronic Court Procedure B.E. 2563 (2020) was issued to enable the actual proceedings—from filing a petition to delivering a judgment—to also be held via electronic systems. However, the regulation was limited to civil and consumer cases (not criminal cases), and it was designed to enable the use of electronically recorded hearings rather than live hearings with witnesses or lawyers participating from remote locations. Nevertheless, it opened a pathway for the Office of the Judiciary to issue miscellaneous notifications; this is the channel that would be used to issue the four recent COVID-19-related notifications described above.
In summary, the courts are now equipped with the regulatory framework to enable remote hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although more complex cases are undoubtedly best carried out according to the refined and well-established procedures in the courtroom, these new measures for remote judicial action will likely allow courts to handle most cases satisfactorily until such a time as those procedures become feasible again.