Courts Service sets out role of remote hearings

Courts Service sets out role of remote hearings

Ian Walker - Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ M

Ian Walker – Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ Managing Director

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (‘HMCTS’), which is responsible for the administration of criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals in England and Wales, has given an indication of the role of remote court hearings, both during the pandemic and in the future.

Remote court hearings involve one or all of the participants taking part remotely, whether via audio or video, by telephone or online. Remote hearings were implemented when national lockdown was imposed, in order to keep the courts running. From mid-May to the end of December 2020, audio or video remote hearings accounted for just over half of all hearings.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, HMCTS had started to test the use of video technology for live participation in hearings, and video has been used in courts historically to enable certain participants to join a hearing remotely, including vulnerable witnesses. However, nothing on the scale of what has been done during the pandemic had been attempted previously.

Advantages

The obvious advantage of remote hearings is doing away with the need for participants to travel to court, which can be especially important for expert witnesses, whose time is particularly precious.

But there are other advantages too.

HMCTS points out that not having to be physically present in a court building can also reduce stress. This is an issue that can easily be missed, especially by those who are used to attending court. For many, a court is an intimidating place, and having to speak to strangers in ‘public’ can be a huge ordeal.

remote court hearings

A related point, of particular relevance to family court proceedings, is that remote hearings remove the need to be in the same room as someone with whom you are in conflict.

And HMCTS make the obvious point that remote hearings reduce the pressure on the use of court buildings, meaning that there should be fewer instances of cases being delayed due to there being no courtroom available.

But HMCTS also make the important point that remote hearings are not always appropriate. It is always up to the judge to decide whether a hearing should take place remotely, and there will be occasions when they consider that a remote hearing is not in the interests of justice, for example due to the complexity of the hearing.

Video hearings

Most remote hearings are undertaken via video. Video hearings can take place with all participants joining from different locations (a fully remote hearing) or with some participants remote and some in court (a hybrid hearing).

HMCTS says that since the start of the pandemic it has increased the number of physical courtrooms capable of holding video-enabled hearings by 750 (approximately 2,300 court rooms were equipped with video hardware pre-COVID).

But obviously it is not just a matter of hardware. A video conference platform is also needed, to enable participants to take part in the hearing. As HMCTS points out, there are proprietary platforms available, but a video conference is not the same as a hearing.

For this reason HMCTS has developed a Video Hearing service that is specifically designed to meet the needs of the judiciary and of court users. HMCTS says that the Video Hearings service supports users in advance of their hearing so they know what to expect on the day, and the interface for the hearing itself is designed to replicate the formality and gravitas of court proceedings.

The Video Hearings service is currently being used in tax, property and employment tribunals, and is being tested in civil and family hearings.

 

The future role of remote hearings

remote court hearings

Perhaps most interestingly, HMCTS say that: “As restrictions ease, we expect that video hearings will continue to be an integral part of a 21st century justice system, used in those hearings where the judge considers it appropriate.”

The pandemic has clearly had a profound and lasting effect upon the way that court hearings are conducted. It may, of course, be that we would have eventually moved to a position where remote hearings were an important part of the system, but the pandemic has accelerated that process, possibly by years.

In short, if you are involved in court proceedings in future, you can expect that at least some of the hearings will be conducted remotely.

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