Judges have warned that cost-cutting is been prioritised over justice in the pursuit of greater use of video hearings.
Concerns about the move away from in-person hearings was a common theme from a wide consultation process asking thousands of judges and office-holders for their views on reform.
In civil justice, priorities identified included staffing in the courts, the proposed courts and tribunals service centres, and issues with listing.
Questions were raised specifically about the increasing use of video technology, asking about the maintenance of open justice and the viability of hearing contested evidence.
In a summary of responses, master of the rolls Sir Terence Etherton and Lord Justice Coulson, deputy head of civil justice, said most civil judges expressed the ‘firm view’ that final hearings were not suitable for video hearings. It was felt judges needed to watch as well as listen to all parties, and there was a greater risk that evidence might be tampered with or manipulated.
Judges were also worried about the loss of the ‘necessary gravitas’ of proceedings, about the security and confidentiality of proceedings, and the ease at which cases could be recorded and posted publicly on social media.
Etherton and Coulson said it had been agreed that senior judges would decide which categories of hearing could be held via video, and in individual cases it would always be for the judge to decide what is suitable.
‘You can be reassured that participation in video hearings is not being forced on anyone, and safeguards as to the process – and participation in it – are being built into the pilot,’ they said.
‘Much will depend on the quality of the IT and equipment… we are a long way from the possibility that any final hearing with contested evidence will be regarded as suitable for a fully video hearing.’
Initial tests of video hearings were conducted last year in the first-tier tax tribunal. This pilot had mixed results, with three out of eight cases not proceeding because of technical problems, and judges in the other five ‘cautiously positive’ about the experiment.
Etherton and Coulson said it was agreed an ‘appropriate number’ of listing officers would be based at court, with the judges retaining ‘proper judicial control’ of all listing functions.
Judges responding to the consultation also expressed unease about blurring the separation of powers if legal advisers carry out any form of judicial function. The senior judges said tests of the work of legal advisers had been successful and there would be investment in recruitment and retention of these staff members. Once trained, they will be ‘co-located’ with judges as they work with them on particular cases or types of case.
Heads of jurisdictions have summarised the position in four documents relating to crime, family, tribunals and civil, after 10,000 judges, panel members and magistrates responded to last year’ consultation. Almost 800 attended local meetings to express their views. Links to all the responses can be found here.