The bar councils of Britain and Ireland do not issue many joint policy statements, so their pronouncement on remote hearings was notable for its singularity alone. Their statement is pretty emphatic, too. Remote hearings deliver an ‘inferior experience’, say UK and Ireland barristers. Post-Covid, only where dealing with ‘short or uncontroversial procedural business’ should remote hearings become the default position.
So what does the Law Society think? Chancery Lane largely echoes the bars, but does not entirely close the door on expanding remote hearings on to more contested territory. ‘Many procedural hearings can be dealt with perfectly well remotely, and this should remain a permanent feature of the justice system,’ president I. Stephanie Boyce told me. ‘However, hearings involving vulnerable parties or witnesses, live evidence, or measures of significant controversy are likely to be best served by an in-person hearing.
‘We would want to see a thorough evaluation of the evidence before there was any widespread adoption of remote technology for more complex hearings, including a full analysis of the justice impact.’
The profession’s growing unease is unsurprising, after plans for remote juries emerged in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This seeks to modify and make permanent the temporary provisions included in the Coronavirus Act that extended the use of video links in courts. Former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption summarised the dangers: ‘Voice is only part of the process of communication between humans,’ he said. ‘Expression, atmosphere and manner count for more than we realise, and they are only partly conveyed by remote video.’
‘Criminal justice online’ happens to be the subject of our main feature this week. Crime solicitors point to the danger that remote hearings will be viewed as some sort of panacea post-crisis, when the limited evidence so far available on their use suggests they are anything but. If convenience and cheapness trump all other considerations, Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice rightly points out, we will have reached the ‘lowest common denominator’ of access to justice.
I’d be interested in your views: firstname.lastname@example.org