The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way court hearings are conducted. The courts have had to adapt to the new circumstances at an unprecedented speed and move away from traditional hearings being conducted in person to a vast majority of hearings being conducted remotely (i.e. by telephone or video). However, it seems that these changes are likely to remain permanent even post-lockdown restrictions.
Modernising the Justice System
Prior to the pandemic some more straightforward hearings were already taking place by telephone (such as case management hearings where no client attendance is required), and some witnesses have been able to give evidence by video. For some time now, HMCTS have been working on a court reform programme with the aim of introducing new technology and modern ways of working to the way justice is administered, such as introducing more online services and developing technology for video hearings. The pace was truly glacial though.
Remote hearing platforms
Needs must when the devil drives so the Government’s response to COVID-19 crisis was to put in place arrangements to use telephone, video and other technology to enable as many hearings to take place as possible remotely. Telephone and video conferencing platforms such as BT Meet Me, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and Zoom were introduced to facilitate keeping the wheels of justice turning. These platforms had some challenges, however, such as the switch from one person to another being less fluid than the physical presence of the advocates in the court room for all the non-verbal communication and the navigation of parties to bundles. The answer to this was seen as being technology that allows more of a virtual courtroom so the participants can engage in a similar way to being in the physical courtroom.
HMCTS have now introduced a Cloud Video Platform (‘CVP’) to conduct civil, family and tribunal hearings across the UK. CVP is a secure digital network with a secure recording capability that creates a ‘virtual courtroom’, which all parties can join from any internet-connected audio & video capable device (such as a computer, laptop, phone or tablet).
CVP was already intended as part of the courts reform programme however COVID-19 has accelerated its rollout. CVP was initially introduced in the criminal courts with an intention to replace criminal trials with video conference calls, and after a successful trial it was rolled out to a wider range of courts. The benefits of CVP are that it provides a secure connection, is hosted in the UK and does not require users to install an application on their devices (as the name suggests, it is run via ‘cloud’). Furthermore, it enables the users to control what is shared with the platform, and provides a virtual environment similar to the physical courtroom.
One of the challenges presented by telephone and video hearings is public access, as the members of the public can no longer simply turn up at a public hearing in a courtroom. Remote hearings are still accessible to the public, unless the court has ordered that the hearing will take place in private. The most common practice for making remote hearings public is that a member of the public or press can request details from the court to join the hearing. The court will also make a recording of the hearing, although it is prohibited for anyone else to make a recording of a court hearing unless the court has expressly given permission for this. Another solution to this has been streaming proceedings by YouTube.
Remote hearings – the ‘new normal’?
Whilst the lockdown restrictions are gradually being lifted and more court buildings are re-opening, it is obvious that remote hearings will become more common going forward where it is possible to avoid a physical hearing. It provides a greater flexibility and cost-efficiency to all parties. Furthermore, the courts are now better equipped technology-wise to facilitate such hearings and are continuing to upgrade their tech resources. The COVID-19 pandemic might be the catalyst for change in the way court hearings are conducted and adopting more modern practices such as remote working.
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