Social media has without doubt been the ruin of many a relationship. Whether it’s the reason for a breakup or just the digital version of a Dear John letter, digital platforms now recreate almost all aspects of real-world romance–even the legal ones.
A married couple, one of whom was in the U.S. and the other in India, recently used WhatsApp’s video call function to formally end their marriage within the subcontinental legal system.
In truth, the virtual nature of the legal proceeding is more a story about the ever-expanding use of video conferencing in the judicial world. However, the use of what is a social and personal medium to enter a legally binding dissolution does raise some questions about the future accessibility of the courts.
Is divorce over WhatsApp a new way to access the same legal process that has existed for decades? Or, could it be the start of a new approach to the law that will ultimately make it a much more streamlined online experience?
The Problem with Technology and the Judicial System
The law is a very location-specific beast. There are unique regulations, restrictions, and processes at the level of your local city council all the way up to the state, federal, and even international levels.
Technology, on the other hand, is available to whomever can access it. In the case of social media tools like WhatsApp, that means anyone who can connect to the internet. The clash of those two concepts creates problems in governance and tends to cause a lag between the commercial adoption of a technology and its use in a legal setting. What is common in our everyday lives remains alien to our council meetings and courtrooms long enough to make them seem archaic.
While most of us would consider evidence or testimony delivered through a video conference as having the same value as testimony given in person, the courts–especially in the U.S.–have a different opinion. The difference lies in how each party defines “presence.”
Is Video Conferencing the Same As Appearing in Person?
In the case of the intercontinental divorce mentioned above, WhatsApp’s video conference function offered a very practical solution to a straightforward problem. The husband in the situation was based in Nagpur, India, and his soon-to-be ex-wife was living in Michigan. Both had to appear in person before the Indian court in order to complete the divorce, but the wife couldn’t make the trip. So, she did the next best thing and appeared by video.
U.S. courts have been highly reluctant to allow video in evidentiary hearings, mostly because it is believed to rob parties of their right to have their day in court
In both countries, the use of WhatsApp is common. Due to the jurisdictional differences, however, the use of video was allowed only in India. U.S. courts have been highly reluctant to allow video in evidentiary hearings, mostly because it is believed to rob parties of their right to have their day in court, although there are other concerns about access to private legal consultation and the judge’s ability to adequately study those appearing before them.
If, however, the U.S. courts would accept that appearing by video is the same as appearing in person–and it is certainly possible to recreate the subtleties of complex hearings using basic video conferencing tools and functions–then we could potentially see a video-driven overhaul of the legal system that would make courtroom video conferencing the norm for non-jury, non-criminal proceedings. This could make appearing in court both less stressful and less arduous, and could potentially speed up the legal process.
Creating a Digital Courtroom
All that the wife in the WhatsApp divorce case needed to do was give her verbal consent to the proceedings. It’s easy to see how requiring her to make a trip halfway around the world to utter a few sentences could be a serious impediment to her achieving justice.
The same applies to matters within a single country. What if the participants are located on either coast of the continental U.S.? Is it fair that one party must undertake a transcontinental flight to appease the rules of a specific jurisdiction?
If it is possible for one party to attend online, couldn’t it be argued that all parties, including the judiciary, could attend the same way?
Furthermore, if video conferencing becomes a valid medium for being in the presence of the court, shouldn’t it follow that the specific video calling platform is of no concern to the court, providing it is reliable and freely available to all involved?
The next leap is a little further. If it is possible for one party to attend online, couldn’t it be argued that all parties, including the judiciary, could attend the same way? Currently, our need to house a digital technology within a specific jurisdiction prohibits patients from seeking medical attention online where one of the callers is based in another state (a circumstance which makes it difficult to build a digital healthcare system), so it appears unlikely the courts will offer such an option soon.
Divorce Over WhatsApp
If we are able to clear the legal hurdles, then it would be possible to build wholly online courts. These services could operate online the way the IRS already does, taking in digital submissions regardless of origin.
We could arrive at a future where anyone, anywhere can book a court appointment online and give verbal evidence in a legal case.
If this entirely virtual body is put into place, it would be reasonable to allow those appearing before it to use any technology that is accessible to them. That would mean that those appearing before the court might do so via WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, Skype, BlueJeans, or any other video chat app.
This means that eventually, we could arrive at a future where anyone, anywhere can book a court appointment online, appear in real time from whatever location they currently occupy, and give verbal evidence in a legal case. Perhaps in the future those legalities will include marriage itself (Skype wedding ceremony, anyone?), which is currently not permitted over video conference.
Someday you could meet on WhatsApp, date on WhatsApp, marry on WhatsApp, and divorce on WhatsApp.