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Lawyers urged to ‘be concise’ so more cases can get on, despite virus
Courts Service chief executive Angela Denning

03 Nov 2020 / courts Print

'Be concise' so more cases can get on, lawyers urged

While many lawyers look forward to getting back to physical hearings and in-person interaction with litigants, the improved efficiencies won by remote work should not be discounted, Mr Justice David Barniville has said.

Speaking at the Law Society litigation seminar on 29 October, the High Court judge said that much non-complex legal work can be done remotely – such as procedural applications, motion lists, call-overs, and directions – without compromising the quality of justice.

Well-oiled machine

“It’s a pretty well-oiled machine,” he observed. 

“People have got used to doing what works, and they are all, by and large, doing it very well,” he said.

Mr Justice Barniville predicted that remote systems for this type of work are here to stay, as they save both money and time spent on physically travelling to court.

At the seminar, ALG litigator Liam Kennedy said that judges often have a ‘frantic few days’ when the Circuit Court sits in the provinces, but if a motion isn’t dealt with, it can be delayed for months.

“That means that, outside Dublin, cases can be disjointed in the way they progress,” he continued.

Maximum effect

“If I was a practitioner in a smaller centre, I would want the judge’s time, when the judge was in town, to be used to maximum effect dealing with trials and discovery motions.” 

Procedural motions can be dealt with remotely, thus allowing practitioners to progress cases far more quickly to hearing, since that is when settlements happen, Liam Kennedy suggested.

Mr Justice Barniville pointed out that, currently, when personal injury cases are heard on circuit, there is a remote call-over a few weeks ahead of hearing.

“Problems with cases that aren’t ready can all be raised at the remote call-over, when counsel and solicitors are logging in, without having to come to Dublin,” the judge said.

“I think we could well continue to have those remote call-overs, in advance of the personal injury sittings. 

“Whether or not that’s something the practitioners want is something we will have to talk to them about, in due course.”

Mr Justice Barniville said that remote hearings are not a full substitute for getting out of Dublin and actually hearing the cases, but offer an alternative in the absence of any other solution.

Monetary value of cases 

Law Society litigation committee chair Liam Kennedy pointed out that decisions of the lower courts may impact on more people, though the cases might lower in monetary value. 

Angela Denning of the Courts Service said that remote call-overs allowed for better use of judges’ limited time and that this has been very successful in family law cases.

Mr Justice Barniville observed that solicitors, at the height of lockdown, had made strenuous efforts to deliver hard copies of relevant paperwork to judges.

“I continue to be more comfortable dealing with hard copy papers, but certainly, where these can’t be lodged for whatever reason, I am reasonably happy to work from soft copy papers as well and I think most judges feel the same way,” he said.

Liam Kennedy suggested that where numerous files exist on a case, a small number of the key ones could be pulled out and put into the traditional lever arch file.

Mr Justice Barniville observed that, on a commercial motion list, there could be up to eight bankers’ boxes of documents to be read in advance.

It would be important to continue getting the critical ones in hard copy, he felt.

Liam Kennedy said this could save a lot of wasted expense, in the volume of paper before the court.

If everybody has agreed on the key authorities on each point, it should short-circuit the motion, Liam Kennedy said.

Reducing footfall

In relation to reducing footfall in Courts Service offices, in light of COVID-19, Angela Denning pointed out that all documents for High Court cases can already be submitted by post.

“I would say to solicitors that all of our offices accept documents by post, but ideally I’d like to get to an online lodgement system,” she said.

The number of ‘drop boxes’ for documents to be stamped has also been increased in court offices.

To completely eliminate the double-keystroke entry of documents mailed in by practitioners will involve significant investment in technology.

The IT systems necessary will be scoped out over the next year, the Courts Service boss said.

Agile

COVID restrictions have shown how agile the Courts Service can be, its chief executive Angela Denning said.

The citizen will benefit from IT investment, she said, because it will deliver a better service.

“I cannot understand why people have to come and queue up in a Court Office in order to find out which form they have to use to apply for a barring order or a safety order.

“They should be able to input their information online and get a court date,” she said.

Both Courts Service staff, as well as practitioners and judges, will embrace this challenge, she said, and huge strides have been made in the last six to eight months.

Twitter

At the onset of the virus, Twitter was chosen as the communication method of choice for Courts Service notifications, given the limitations of current IT systems, which cannot send a global email to parties to an action, in the event of adjournment or relisting.

“Every time we had a notice in relation to a list in the legal, we send out a Tweet, and the Law Society is copied.

“That was the quickest way to get the maximum amount of information into people’s pockets,” she said.

Angela Denning said that large numbers of cases are ultimately settled and this traditionally happened on the hearing date. 

“It’s not possible for us to give hearing dates to certain types of cases during level five restrictions,” she said.

Settlement rate

“If people continue to engage with each other, that settlement rate can be kept as high as possible,” Angela Denning continued. 

“Try to narrow the issues before you come in the door of the court,” she advised practitioners.

“Use WhatsApp the night before to talk to each other. Work out what exactly the judge needs to hear and what can be left out," the Courts Service boss continued.

“If we can shorten the hearing times for physical cases, we can get more cases on if the cases don’t last as long.

“If people can be concise, that will absolutely help us get more cases through the system,” she said, pointing out that advance preparation for cases is key.

Finally, she warned practitioners against consulting with each other in court hallways.

“Wear a mask and stand back from each other,” she urged, saying fewer sole traders will be out of work if the health advice is properly followed.

Denning said she understood it was difficult to change the long-standing habit of meeting for client consultations in the corridors ahead of a hearing.

Foyer problems

“It’s a completely different way of working for people but this is the only way we can keep the doors open safely.

“This is the only way we can keep the show on the road,” she repeated.

“We have no problem in the court rooms in the main, where everybody does what they are supposed to do 

“It’s the foyers, the lobbies and the corridors that are proving to be a problem,” Angela Denning said.

Gazette Desk
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