People often think that our justice system is archaic and perceive bewigged Judges to be out of touch with modern society. The COVID-19 pandemic has fortuitously turbo-boosted the Courts’ acceptance and use of technology.
Due to the risks posed, a Judge sitting in the Court of Protection recently held a three-day trial entirely by Skype. This was the first of its kind in England and Wales, and represented the start of Justice being administered remotely, where possible.
Since lockdown on 20 March, the Judiciary has largely been embracing the use of technology, to enable urgent cases to be progressed, despite the Courts themselves being physically closed or severely restricted to the public and their staff. The Judges themselves can work from home, theoretically able to conduct trials from their kitchen table. The same applies to barristers and solicitors, having internet access and working from home.
Although there can be some disadvantages to holding remote hearings, such as technical glitches or issues around giving oral evidence, there are potentially huge costs savings both for the Department of Justice (if Judges could hear cases outside of a traditional court building), and to the parties (travel by the parties, the cost of lawyers travelling to the Court). Although virtual courtrooms are to be expected during the period of lockdown, it may become something of the norm for certain types of cases in the future, particularly commercial matters where both parties have legal representation, and enjoy the IT infrastructure to support Skype or similar secure video conferencing platforms. Lawyers having to work remotely from home as the norm rather than the exception may also potentially change the way the legal system operates in the future.
Virtual hearings are certainly not suitable for all types of hearings and criminal cases are reported to be backing up, where Judges cannot proceed to hear certain cases remotely. Those trials requiring a Jury, for example, are not taking place at this time.
The Family Courts are another area where virtual justice can pose problems. Increasingly there are litigants in person representing themselves. This can cause procedural issues when seeking to arrange and conduct a virtual hearing. Also, cases involving children and their protection are tricky to conduct, when you can imagine the child being within earshot of their parent or hearing the Judge on speaker, discussing the child’s well-being and other sensitive matters.
It remains to be seen if the measures being taken to accommodate ‘virtual’ justice will become preferred by some or indeed many of the judiciary for efficiency, cost or other reasons beyond lockdown. There may well be a move to try and push many cases away from physical court hearings in the interests of saving costs. It’s already clear however that just because a case CAN be conducted remotely does not mean that it SHOULD be and case reports are emerging where it has been made very clear that a remote court hearing was simply unsuitable. Rest assured however that in light of the expectation that social distancing will be required for some time to come, we at Stokes Partners will become well versed in the ‘new system’ and work as effectively as possible to see our clients’ cases progressed through the medium of IT where necessary and appropriate, but also able to ensure that no-one is “railroaded” into a virtual hearing if that’s not in their best interests.
The information contained in this article provides a general overview of the current position in relation to the subject matter. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in relation to any specific legal problem. If you have a problem requiring assistance with a court hearing of whether in the civil or family courts please contact our specialist family and litigation teams by telephone or email.