Lawyers forced to litigate through remote hearings say they are satisfied with the experience – but most still want to return to the physical courtroom, according to the first official assessment of the emergency arrangements.
The ‘rapid review’, by a team headed by Dr Natalie Byrom of the Legal Education Foundation and published today by the Civil Justice Council, examined the impact of 'significant and rapid' changes introduced in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. It attracted an ‘exceptional’ response. Overall 71.5% of lawyers responding described their experience as positive or very positive.
This was despite almost half of them experiencing technical problems.
Positive feedback included the ability to see the judge’s reaction and overwhelming confidence that the judge had understood the arguments presented.
But the majority of respondents reported that hearings in person were better and more effective. Video hearings were found to have a negative effect on the ability to communicate with clients and other legal teams, dialogue during court sessions was less fluent, and it was harder to gauge reactions and respond appropriately. Frustration with connection problems, delays and time lags were also commonly expressed.
The report suggests that while practitioners are content to persist with remote hearings while coronavirus makes physical hearings so difficult, they would not support wholesale changes once the virus has subsided.
The review, including online surveys and a virtual meeting of court users, covered two weeks in May. The sample of respondents was heavily skewed towards legal professionals, with 871 of 1,077 describing themselves as lawyers. Just 11 responses were submitted by lay users of the civil courts. Just 11% of the hearings sampled in the report involved litigants in person – who are thought to be at the greatest disadvantage from moving courts remotely.
City firms tended to support remote hearings for commercial litigation, but some lawyers reported finding remote hearings more tiring and that the proliferation of guidance was ‘overwhelming and confusing’.
The report states that problems experienced with virtual hearings are likely to be amplified if they are expanded at scale. A number of respondents said their clients wanted to adjourn remote hearings until they could be heard in person – one in particular described their experience as ‘cheap justice’.
Concerns were also raised about communication and support provided in advance of the hearing.
Responding to the report, the master of the rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, said: 'The report makes a number of recommendations which we will consider carefully.' He revealed that a cross-sector working group, chaired by Mr Justice Knowles, will address concerns about the ending of the current stay on housing possession claims.