Following a survey of over 8000 respondents, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has published an evaluation of remote hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report traces the pre-pandemic background, with the use of video hearings already being widespread in the criminal jurisdiction. This was followed by the rapid adoption at the outset of the pandemic of remote hearing technology across the civil and family jurisdictions as well – primarily Cloud Video Platform (CVP) for video hearings and BT MeetMe for audio-only hearings.
The report notes the various challenges faced by stakeholders and participants in remote hearings, with 1 in 5 remote hearing public users experiencing issues with technology during such hearings. Enthusiasm for remote hearings was slightly higher amongst public users than amongst legal professionals and members of the judiciary. Legal professionals and judiciary members noted difficulties in maintaining concentration via the remote hearing medium. Strikingly, 97% of members of the judiciary who responded to the survey observed a reduction in the level of formality by public users during remote hearings, with 91% noticing a decline in the level of respectfulness from public users as well.
Of the different possible formats for holding remote hearings, there was a strong preference for fully-video hearings amongst judges (70%) and legal professionals (68%), as opposed to audio-only, or partly audio/partly attended hybrid hearings – the latter format being the least popular.
Whilst support for remote hearings during the pandemic was strong amongst all stakeholders, ongoing support for their retention beyond the pandemic was more mixed. Whilst 77% of legal professionals agreed that they comprised an acceptable alternative to in-person hearings in a post-pandemic legal landscape, 40% of judges and 31% of public users disagreed with this.
The appetite for remote hearings was strongest for procedural and case management type hearings, such as directions hearings, case management conferences, ‘short application hearings of up to 2 hours’, reviews and straightforward claims such as Small Claims Track hearings. Remote hearings were considered less appropriate for longer hearings and trials – especially those involving cross-examination. Public users were of the view that being physically distanced from an adversary in proceedings was beneficial in reducing tension.
More than a third of legal representatives (36%) reported being dissatisfied with the lack of communication from the court about delays and cancellations of remote hearings. They commented that lack of information about delays can be a major factor contributing towards a stressful experience for their clients.
A further observation to emerge from the evaluation is the shortcomings of the current video technology, which does not facilitate discussions between litigants and their legal representatives either before, during, or after hearings. HMCTS has championed the introduction of their Video Hearings Service throughout 2022 as a replacement to CVP. The former has additional features including virtual conference rooms or breakout spaces, which enables private communication between client and Counsel, for instance, as well as user guides.
The HMCTS evaluation concludes with a number of development areas, including the suggestion that “video hearings should take precedence over audio hearings in most contexts wherever possible unless there are specific support requests or technical issues”. Courts were also reminded to “ensure remote hearing joining instructions and links are sent out [in] a reasonable time for the hearing especially where parties are accessing support.”