The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the civil justice system. Lockdown played havoc with court listings resulting in many hearings being vacated. At this time, with no alternative, virtual hearings were welcomed by parties and their representatives.
English courts have historically had the power to hold remote hearings. Video links are often used in criminal cases however in civil cases, video links were rare and it was unknown of to hold substantive hearings on a fully remote basis.
Since the pandemic the majority of hearings have either been carried out via telephone or remotely via video link. In some cases there have been a number of notable benefits to remote hearings.
Parties are able to attend hearings from the comfort of their own home reducing travel time and costs. Gone are the days where Barristers would travel around the country to attend court to represent clients. Remote hearings may therefore be the best use of the parties, and their representatives’, time. Hybrid hearings may also be advantageous with some parties or witnesses dialling in whilst others attend in person. Remote Hearings can be kinder to parties’ mental health by reducing the stress and anxiety, which can be, associated with in person Court hearings.
Although technical issues are inevitable, the software used by the courts has been impressive. Some platforms allow for virtual “waiting rooms” and breakaway discussions. Digital bundles and digital document filing has also been a welcome introduction and is likely to be become the norm, reducing time, cost and resources.
That being said the efficiency of a remote hearing is dependent on parties’ connectivity and IT competency. Remote hearings can be more difficult with a party who has less access to technology, and often particularly difficult for litigants in person. Access to digital bundles can also be problematic. In these circumstances hearings can often take longer, with parties having to clarify what is being said and manage IT difficulties.
For those taking part in a remote hearing from home, the risks of children or pets interrupting are always present. There have been a number of amusing stories which have come to light during the pandemic. Most notably the Texas lawyer who discovered he was appearing as a cat during a zoom hearing.
Whilst there will always be disadvantages to remote hearings, there have been a number of notable benefits and as restrictions begin to lift; remote hearings are likely to remain and will no doubt became an on-going feature of civil proceedings.