John Szepietowski advises on Virtual Court Hearings

Given the Covid-19 pandemic has restricted in-person meetings, courts have had to adapt to remain open in these pressing times. Although some courts and tribunals remain open to face to face hearings, whilst implementing social distancing measures, more than ever courts are relying on the use of technology to continue business as usual. Remote court hearings have replaced the majority of in-person hearings in order for the court system carry on in an effective manner.

It has become common knowledge that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused significant delays throughout the justice system and virtual hearings are a pivotal step on the road to normality. One of the key benefits of online hearings is that hearings are taking place rather than being stalled. This is especially important in the family courts which have faced severe interruptions. On the other hand, parties will have to adapt to the online system. Albeit in this technological driven world with assistance at people’s fingertips, navigating online hearings should not come as such a struggle to many.

Online hearings have put court hearings back on schedule making it a more convenient way to save costs and time as parties are able to attend the hearings in the comfort of their own home or office. This eliminates the time and expense incurred on travelling to court and reduces the cost of the lawyer attending the hearing. However, in order for a remote hearing to run effectively, all parties should ensure they have suitable computer equipment and internet connections. Although, it may be safe to presume that most lawyers and judges will have access to such equipment, this may not necessarily be the situation for the parties in a case. Furthermore, some parties may not have access to a quiet and private space to attend the hearing.

Another concern raised is that judges have less control in a remote hearing. For example, in an in-person hearing a judge can control the use of telephones, coaching witnesses and parties who are talking. A key issue is the illegal recording of court hearings which the judge may not be aware of. This is especially concerning where personal and/or financial information is being shared during the hearing. Although most court hearings are open to the public and the recording of a hearing takes place, the recording of the hearing without the court’s permission is not permitted. This is particularly serious where parties’ bank statements are used as evidence, therefore bank account details could be recorded illegally and thus lead to account hacking and fraud. Exceptional care is required when personal information is being put forward as evidence.

Normally a judge can control a hearing, avoiding undesirable events such as the coaching of a witness, or witness harassment or parties being under duress. This may be difficult to avoid during a video call. Judges have very serious responsibilities which impact a case greatly, the use of technology can unfortunately be a detriment to people’s lives when it is used to mask unacceptable courtroom practices.

Due to the pandemic, many people and businesses have been forced to adapt and it is vital that the court system modifies itself to ensure our justice system is as effective as can be. Remote hearings are a beneficial and important way of doing so, although, there are issues that require attention. The consensus is that it is working. Certainly, improvements should be made to make it most effective, however, it seems likely that remote hearings will continue to be a key factor in the evolution of the of the British Legal system. Please contact John Szepietowski of Audley Chaucer Solicitors to discuss this matter or any other legal topic.

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