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Remote hearings before COVID – and what next?

Ken Slade reports on research into the remote video hearing pilot and examines what the future of judicial proceedings may look like post-COVID-19.

Research by the London School of Economics into the success, or otherwise, of remote video hearings has given them a cautious thumbs-up.

The report is based on analysis of a limited number of hearings of specific types – applications to set aside judgments, first directions hearings, tax appeals and short notice hearings, in just three civil justice centres – Manchester, Birmingham and Taylor House, London, between March 2019 and March 2020.

This study expands on a pilot which was conducted by the same researchers in 2018, the first time that hearings where all parties appeared remotely had been trialled.

Of all the hearings which were potentially eligible, just a very small number made it through to the pilot assessment with many hearings being deemed unsuitable for a variety of reasons, including complexity, urgency or because a party was unrepresented.

In addition, of the 23 hearings which were assessed, just 14 were completed, with six failing to proceed due to technological difficulties and the other three not going ahead due to missing documents. The average length of the assessed hearings was just 33 minutes.

In 'ordinary' times, the report would have been considered and, doubtless, its findings generally welcomed – anything which seeks to improve or increase access to justice while reducing travelling and related legal costs must be viewed positively. However, the dates of the pilot are what are of most interest – it concluded just as the pandemic hit, and one of the authors herself notes that the "[positive findings] cannot take the place of an evaluation of the Justice response to COVID-19."

Before the pandemic hit, the number of hearings using remote technology was very limited. By mid-April, it was in excess of 3000, and those of us in practice will all have our own stories to tell about what our experiences have been like, but the long-term effects and impacts of the pandemic on how we all use the courts, and the resulting implications for access to justice, are as yet unknown.

The Justice Select Committee has just published a report on the impact of the pandemic on courts. It will be the first of very many but it may offer us a few clues as to what our future looks like and I will be considering this in more detail in my next post.

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