Civil Justice in the Remote Hearings Era

Every month, Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) publish management information, albeit on a 2-month delay. The management information covers the most recent 12 months. Of most interest to clients, advocates and stakeholders who work with LPC Law, are the statistics in relation to Civil Courts – primarily the County Courts.

The most recently published data, which was released on 11 February 2021, relates to the year from December 2019 to December 2020. It can be found here:

Table 2 contains the Civil and Family Courts figures. This includes the revealing statistic of how long a litigant must wait between the date of issue of a Small Claim and the first full hearing of the Small Claim. Between January 2020 and April 2020 inclusive, this waiting period remained constant at just under 40 weeks. As the effects of the pandemic took hold, the waiting time consistently increased up to the longest period of 1 year (52.0 weeks) in September 2020. The wait time has since fallen slightly to 49.6 weeks in December 2020.

This means that any user of the Civil Court who issues a Small Claim can realistically expect to wait roughly 1 year, to have that claim decided by a judge of the County Court. It is worth noting that this is the average figure; some litigants will, by definition, have had to wait in excess of the average period.

The data also demonstrate a dip in the number of claims to under 80,000 claims per month between April 2020 and August 2020 inclusive. Thereafter, there has been a return to six-figure numbers of claims being issued monthly, with a noticeable rise to 156,272 claims being issued in October 2020, following the lifting of the 6-month stay on almost all possession proceedings on 20 September 2020. The early indication is that the year-on-year numbers have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels when December 2019 is compared directly with December 2020.

Since the first national lockdown was announced on 23 March 2020, HMCTS has published weekly data regarding how many of its hearings were being conducted remotely via audio and video connections.

The early data is approximate and rounded to the nearest 50, reflecting the haste with which it was gathered in difficult, unprecedented conditions. Nevertheless, the marked pattern is a sharp increase rise from no more than 650 audio hearings per day in the week commencing 23 March 2020, to over 1,500 audio hearings per day in April 2020. Similarly, the use of video has risen roughly six-fold from pre-pandemic levels. The proportion of audio/video hearings rose to 90% of all HMCTS hearings in April 2020, with video platforms accounting for about one-third of all remote hearings.

In the most recently published data for all courts and tribunals for the week commencing 24 January 2021, face-to-face hearings were, following a dramatic and sustained lull between April and mid-July 2020 the largest individual category of hearings again (15,543), followed closely by 14,248 video hearings and 8,826 audio hearings. The aggregate number of video hearings continues to outnumber audio hearings, in no small part due to the number of criminal court appearances which take place via video link.

The overall picture is that courts have adapted to the necessity of holding a significantly higher proportion of remote hearings, implementing the technology to do so on an accelerated basis. A new kind of administrative demand has been placed on HMCTS personnel, to host or organise remote hearings, alongside the return of higher numbers of in-person hearings at court.

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