Law School's Courtroom 21 Breaks New Ground in Resolving International Child Abduction Cases

The Courtroom 21 Project hosted an unprecedented lab trial involving an international child abduction case. Third-year law student Joshua Heslinga, acting as attorney for the children's father, questions a witness in Mexico through the use of videoconferencing technology. Photo by Brian Whitson.

The two judges - one sitting on the bench in Williamsburg, Va., the other Monterrey, Mexico - simultaneously listen to testimony in a groundbreaking parental abduction case that not only crosses the borders of two countries, but also the world's legal system.

The children's father resides in Williamsburg with his oldest daughter. His estranged wife, who moved back to Mexico with their other daughter, refuses to return the child and accuses her husband of abuse while she lived in the United States. Both want custody of the two young girls. However, until now their legal options were limited.

With the assistance of cutting-edge courtroom technology tested at the Courtroom 21 Project at the William & Mary Law School, the case is finally heard - and resolved - with both judges in separate countries reaching a joint decision together. The mother retains full custody but the children's father is granted liberal visitation rights.

"To the best of our knowledge, this was world history," said Chancellor Professor of Law Frederic I. Lederer, director of the Courtroom 21 Project.

The case was fictitious, a lab trial written and developed by Courtroom 21, a joint project of the Law School and National Center for State Courts. The results and protocol recently tested, however, could have real applications to courtrooms across the world.

Lederer explained that the mock hearing was the first ever attempt at using courtroom technology to facilitate a multi-court international child abduction hearing. The United States portion of the proceedings was held in the world's most technologically advanced courtroom, the Law School's McGlothlin Courtroom.

"We had two independent courts, each sitting in its own country... each one taking testimony that it could not otherwise receive from the other court," Lederer added. "Our goal was to prove that it was possible to do this type of procedure and thereby begin the international discussion of how to deal with those legal and policy questions."

As of now, the only legal outlet available in international child abduction cases is the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The Hague Convention, which includes more than 50 nations as signatories, including the United States and Mexico, mandates the return of children to the country they lived before the abduction occurred - unless there are allegations of abuse.

Since the mother in the Law School's mock trial alleged a hostile living environment - which she said amounted to abuse - the Hague Convention could not be enforced. The protocol developed at Courtroom 21, however, made it possible for the two courts to hold a joint custody hearing and the judges to simultaneously reach a resolution together.

"What we did was the outgrowth of roughly five years of experimental work in which we have been trying to determine how to use remote appearance technology to improve the world's legal systems," Lederer explained. "Our question was: If you can eliminate distance, how can you improve the administration of justice."

Using technology such as video conferencing and real-time interpretation in both English and Spanish thanks to the help of the Williamsburg-based company, Exact Lingua, the two courts and judge easily communicated throughout the hearing. Attorneys in both countries were able to question witnesses on both sides of the border and evidentiary exhibits were available instantly on the Internet.

District Court Judge John J. Specia of Bexar County, Texas presided over the U.S. portion of the hearing. His colleague in Monterrey, Third Family Court Judge Guadalupe Balderas, presided over the portion of the case heard in Mexico. Attorneys in Williamsburg were played by third-year William and Mary law students.

"It was slightly intimidating but, ultimately, very rewarding to be a part of this experience," said third-year law student Jessica Aber, who played the part of co-counsel for the children's father, Thomas Blossom. "I was surprised to learn that simultaneous court ordering is not the norm and I think this kind of protocol will be used in the future."

Aber said the biggest challenge in the courtroom experiment was the language barrier, even with the help of real-time translations through a system that allowed those in the courtroom to wear headphones and receive an instant interpretation. However, Aber added, the advantages of two courts working together made the experience a success.

"Using computers, both judges were able to see evidence simultaneously," she said. "The teleconferencing system enabled each judge to ask questions of counsel and witnesses."

While the lab trial was considered a success, Lederer said they are currently reviewing the results of the experiment to determine what could, or should be changed and improved in terms of technology, diplomacy, law, ethics and practicality. Courtroom 21 developed the protocol with the assistance of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the U.S. State Department's Office of Children Issues.

"We learned, first and foremost, that this protocol works and that it's actually possible to do," Lederer said. "The next step is for us to review what we did and analyze the consequences in terms of technology, diplomacy, law, ethics and practicality."