The findings of an independent review into remote hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic will be unveiled a few days later than planned after more than 1,000 responses were received. Meanwhile, frontline lawyers continue to express concern about the impact of remote hearings for clients.
The Civil Justice Council commissioned a review led by Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research at the Legal Education Foundation, to gather feedback on the impact of coronavirus measures on the civil justice system. The findings were due to be published today but will now be published next Wednesday ‘in order to be able to properly consider and include the vast number of responses received’, the council said.
Last week the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, told peers that judges and practitioners had found the use of remote hearings successful and often more convenient in many types of case. He also sensed from practitioners and judges that there will be increased demand for remote technology.
Philippa Bruce, a family solicitor at Kent Law Clinic, told the Gazette that although telephone hearings can be efficient for the court, they are not as successful for clients.
Bruce said: ‘We rely a lot on body language and eye contact in court hearings to ensure that the judge has understood a point, or that the client is content with what you are saying on their behalf. Without being able to see one another, clients may feel less confident as to whether the hearing is going well. It’s hard to reassure a client during a telephone hearing.
‘Telephone hearings also do not allow for any meaningful pre-hearing discussion with your opponent that you would usually have at court. Yes, you could ring or video-conference them beforehand, but many of us are working at home without work phones and although we may have become accustomed to letting our client in to our home, few of us would feel the same about sharing this with another party.’
Stephensons Solicitors' Rachel Benett, an associate solicitor in the family department in Manchester, said many clients do not have access to a laptop, smartphone or reliable internet connection.
She said: ‘Connections coming and going, pictures freezing, and not always being able to hear everything that is being said can be unsettling and potentially unfair. This is especially concerning if parents are having to give oral evidence. For the most serious decisions including the removal of children from their parents’ care, either at an interim stage or permanently, the fairness of the process is crucial, and as well as the process actually being fair, it is important that it appears to be fair and that all involved can have confidence in it.
‘The issues are even more concerning where parents are vulnerable. Many parents involved in care proceedings have learning difficulties or disabilities and mental health needs, some require interpreters. It is exceptionally difficult to ensure that they are fully and fairly involved in remote hearings. All of these concerns are exacerbated where parties are in person as is often the case in private law proceedings.’
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.