Frontline justice workers appear some way from sharing the lord chief justice’s enthusiasm for remote hearings, with reports of logistical problems, detriment to clients and exhausted lawyers.
Lord Burnett of Maldon last week said there would be ‘no going back’ to pre-coronavirus days and gave his sense that practitioners and judges would demand greater use of remote hearings in future. He was careful to say virtual justice was not suitable in all cases – and that new systems developed in recent weeks had caused particular problems for litigants in person – but also noted that many had found the changes more convenient.
Lord Burnett largely echoed the views of his IT adviser Professor Richard Susskind, who wrote in the Financial Times earlier last week that anecdotal evidence indicated that most remote hearings had gone well under lockdown.
Some lawyers responded to such assertions by suggesting he was asking the wrong people.
Family barrister and blogger Lucy Reed wrote last week that anyone characterising the courts’ performance in recent weeks as better ‘has not been paying attention’.
‘Many things have been slower, more difficult, less fair, less effective – and less humane. And they also aren’t sustainable.. we are all discovering that remote hearings, whether video or phone, and regardless of platform, are just more tiring on the brain and eyes and you can’t work so fast or for so long.’
Kent Law Clinic solicitor Philippa Bruce has highlighted the sheer amount of work required to prep for a remote family law hearing in her own blog post. She pointed out it was hard to go through and discuss bundles of documents with someone when you cannot physically show them what you are reading from.
She said clients are also denied the normal discussion with their solicitor outside the court door, with no chance for notes passed during the hearing.
Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, agreed the reality is that the widespread rollout of remote hearings will permanently alter how justice is delivered.
Davis added: ‘There will be areas where technological solutions have proved a success and may be sustainably used to deliver justice with greater flexibility but many hearings where people must still be physically present.
‘Data in the evaluation of the Video Enabled Justice pilot in Medway raises concerns about the impact of remote hearings on the quality of justice. It will be essential that all the appropriate research is carried out and these issues are fully addressed in any situations where video hearings are to be used long term.’