As the Courts Service in Ireland prepares to roll out an improved platform for remote hearings, a new report has said that its counterpart in England and Wales must improve guidance and support to parties if it wants to continue with remote tribunal hearings after the pandemic.
According to the Law Society Gazette of England and Wales, the Legal Education Foundation (LEF) said that HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) should provide a checklist before any hearing, making sure that everyone understood the process and had the necessary papers to hand.
This followed a survey of 1,500 tribunal judges, which showed serious concern about the arrangements for accessing papers – leading to applications to appeal – and confusion about the multiple versions of guidance about how to handle remote hearings.
The Gazette said that the LEF report also called for changes to the functionality of the Cloud Video Platform, after more than 30% of respondents to the survey said they were not satisfied with it, making this one of the most unpopular of all platforms used to hear cases.
This was considered “worrying”, given that the platform has been chosen as the official platform for use across tribunals in England and Wales.
The report also uncovered issues with the audio and picture quality, and problems with feedback, distortion and time-lags.
The incompatibility of the platform with browsers other than Google Chrome, and the ability of the platform to cope with lower broadband speeds, were also raised as concerns.
Extra costs for judges
The LEF said that the platform should be adapted to show larger pictures of attendees, and enhanced with a private virtual waiting-room to facilitate pre-hearing discussions between parties.
Most respondents reported requiring more than one device to conduct remote hearings, and judges said they had had to purchase additional equipment to access e-bundles.
One fee-paid judge reported having to spend £1,000 on new equipment, and even 19% of salaried judges, whose equipment is provided by HMCTS, said they had had to buy their own extra items.
Upgraded Irish system
In Ireland, the Courts Service recently announced plans to improve Pexip, its platform for remote hearings.
It said the standard virtual court platform provided challenges — showing both the witness and questioner on the screen at the same time was not possible, and it did not allow anyone wishing to intervene to indicate their wish to do so.
An upgraded system, Pexip Infinity, will allow the hearing of cases involving more witnesses and affidavits. The Courts Service says many personal-injury cases could benefit from this new technology.
According to the courts body, judges who have used the new platform have found it “highly satisfactory”, not only for hearing the legal argument, but also for hearing the evidence of a number of expert witnesses.
Support for hybrid model
Angela Denning (Chief Executive of the Courts Service) has said that a combination of physical hearings and remote hearings will be needed as long as social-distancing restrictions are in place. There may also be hybrid situations, with some people in court and some online.
A survey carried out by the courts body showed that most lawyers would opt for a mix of remote and physical work in the future.
In all, 92% of survey respondents agreed that case management, call-overs, and lists to fix dates were best suited to virtual courts.
The Courts Service said that feedback from interviews with practitioners had confirmed that they had found the ability to attend remotely beneficial – in particular the reduction in time spent travelling to courts.
The Chief Justice Frank Clarke has expressed some reservations about remote hearings, however, saying that he and his colleagues believed they were not as effective as the traditional model of physical hearings.
Speaking at the launch of the Supreme Court’s annual report in April, he said: “The ability to interact fully with counsel is reduced, thus leading to most questions being deferred until the end of counsel’s submissions, or a suitable gap in proceedings.”
Just over a year after virtual courts were first introduced, the Courts Service recently hit a milestone of 5,000 virtual court sessions.