A just-published Courts Service survey shows that most lawyers would opt for a hybrid remote/in-person model for court work into the future.
Legal practitioners were the largest respondent group, making up 66% of the total.
These are informed users who have real-life experience of remote courts, the Courts Service has said.
In all, 92% of survey respondents agreed that case management, call-overs, and lists to fix dates were best suited to virtual courts.
Virtual courts will continue to be used for short or uncontroversial procedural business.
Way of the future
As virus restrictions ease and in-person courts gradually return, hybrid court arrangements are seen as the way of the future, the Courts Service has said.
New and upgraded software – an advanced Pexip Infinity – has also been rolled out for the virtual hearing of witness cases, which will allow for anyone wishing to intervene in a hearing to indicate their wish to do so.
The Courts Service is also in the process of making an advanced Pexip Infinity available for personal-injury actions.
The previous iteration did not facilitate showing both the witness and their questioner on screen at the same time.
Judges who have used the new software have found it highly satisfactory, for hearing legal argument, as well as the evidence of a number of expert witnesses, the Courts Service has said.
For those interested in learning more about how personal-injury actions can be heard through Pexip Infinity, a moot court has been recorded and is available online.
In the survey, a majority of court users demonstrate a strong appetite for continued use of virtual courts.
The Courts Service provided almost 5,000 virtual court hearings in the past year with virtual courts providing an alternative during the pandemic, to ensure that cases continued to flow through the system.
The Courts Service is to roll out its Pexip Infinity platform, to allow cases involving more witnesses than affidavits to be heard.
Many personal-injury cases will also benefit from this new technology.
Courts Service chief executive Angela Denning said: “There are areas of court work that are opening up more because of the lifting of government restrictions, particularly around travel.
“This includes increased numbers of family-law case being listed, probate personal applications, and some witness cases in the High Court."
Litigants were most severely affected during the pandemic in cases determined on oral evidence rather than on affidavit.
Personal-injuries litigation have been hardest hit by restrictions, Angela Denning said.
“We need to be able to organise the hearing of these cases in large numbers within restrictions, whether that hearing be a fully physical hearing, a fully remote hearing, or a hybrid hearing of some people in court and some online.
“We need to be able to move seamlessly from one type of hearing to another in response to any change in restriction,” she added.
The Courts Service has also welcomed the recent statement from the Bar Council that it is supportive of remote hearings to tackle the build-up of cases.
The Courts Service said it was very positive to see practitioners playing such an active part in helping to determine the future direction of virtual courtrooms.
Practitioners have confirmed that they find the ability to attend remotely beneficial – as they can attend multiple lists concurrently, if required, without travelling long distances for a few minutes in court.
Angela Denning said: “Based on initial feedback, our experience to date, and that of the judiciary, I would envisage a future of ‘hybrid courts’ – mix of physical and digital courts that would be suitable, to meet the varying needs of our diverse range of users. COVID restrictions allowed the disruption [that the] courts needed to embrace change,” she said.
Mr Justice Michael Hanna of the High Court said that he has found remote technology “to be a useful and effective medium for the conduct of many aspects of personal-injury litigation.
“I include those trials which lie at the less-contentious end of the litigation spectrum.
“For example, I have conducted, without significant difficulty, an admittedly uncomplicated trial involving an elderly and infirm plaintiff on the eastern coast of Canada, and the defendant in person residing outside of Dublin.”
Mr Justice Hanna said that the conduct of many aspects of litigation online will be a necessary part of day-to-day business for the near future, at least.
High Court examiner Patricia Troy said: “The use of remote technology has ensured that there are no build-ups in the bankruptcy court list for those debtors who wish to be adjudicated bankrupt.
“These debtors are no longer required to attend in person for the hearing but can attend virtually.”
Feedback indicates that this has made what can be a daunting prospect less stressful for participants, she added.
Ms Troy also noted: “The attendance by participants at remote hearings before the examiner has exceeded what would have been the situation when physical hearings were the norm.”
This can be attributed to the ease of access to remote hearings, and an increasing acceptance, generally, of this mode of conducting business.