New research on video hearings conducted pre-pandemic has found the service was deemed to be more convenient and easy to use.

Researchers from the London School of Economics assessed remote hearings conducted in the year to March 2020 in a limited number and range of cases.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service welcomed the findings and promised to continue developing and testing how the video hearings service has operated during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The scope of the research appears to be limited: just 14 of the 23 video hearings evaluated were completed, with six failing due to technology faults and three not proceeding due to missing documents. One of the completed cases included a hearing which lasted four minutes, after both sides settled in advance. While lawyers have got used to online hearings lasting for hours if not days, the average length of cases subject to this evaluation was just 33 minutes.

Researchers cautioned that the results should be read as ‘exploratory and preliminary’ based on the small sample.

Notably, the review ended at the same time that the country went into lockdown and remote hearings effectively became the norm, leaving any conclusions drawn before this period largely overtaken by events.

The cases selected all involved judges appearing from a courtroom either at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre, the Birmingham Civil Justice Centre or Taylor House, London. Cases were either set aside judgments, first directions appointments, tax appeals or short notice hearings.

Users were generally found to comply with basic advice, displayed a professional demeanour and joined from a neutral setting. Sound quality was high, but in some cases poor lighting caused difficulty. Nine of the cases that did start were delayed up to 15 minutes by problems with people logging on, but once that was overcome there were few further technical hitches.

Most users commented favourably on the convenience of having a video hearing and the time and cost it saved. Some also reported reduced stress and anxiety due to being able to take part from home or from their solicitor’s office.

Judges involved in the sample, who all had previous experience with screens in the courtroom, were satisfied with the process but noted that the format could make a hearing more difficult to manage and was more draining than physical hearings.

There also appeared to an issue getting eligible cases through to a video hearing. From March 2019 to March 2020, of the 1,000-plus potential first-directions appointments in Birmingham and Manchester, just six made it through to video hearing. Of the 761 potential set aside judgments that could be handled remotely, 21 proceeded to video hearing. Many cases were removed because at least one party was unrepresented or judges felt they were too complex or urgent to be involved in the pilot.