Remote trials in Ireland – the future is now

Date published

31/03/2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated technological change in the Administration of Justice. Many routine direction hearings and interlocutory applications are now conducted remotely. However, there is a backlog in civil trials involving witnesses. Now, in certain circumstances, fully remote civil trials are being conducted.

The Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 (the Act) expanded the Irish court’s use of technology to respond to pandemic challenges. In this shift towards a more modern approach to court hearings, Section 11 of the Act enables courts to direct that civil proceedings may take place by way of remote hearing. The parties can apply for a case to be heard remotely and the court also has discretion to direct a remote hearing. Under the Act, the court retains the same powers when its proceedings are conducted remotely and a person who participates by remote hearing has the same duties, obligations and liabilities as when proceedings are held in person.

Witnesses of both fact and expertise can give their evidence remotely, even if such witnesses are located outside of Ireland. Remote witness trials necessitate sophisticated video conferencing platforms that can host and rapidly present documents during a live trial. Whilst the Irish court service has a technological platform, the Act also allows alternative platforms to be used, albeit at cost to the parties. For the present, therefore, the expense of fully remote witness hearings may only be suitable for large value cases.

Kennedys’ Dublin office has just completed a six day fully remote witness trial in the Admiralty Court. The judge, barristers, solicitors and witnesses were all situated in separate locations. In urging a fully remote trial, the Admiralty Judge emphasised that justice should continue during the pandemic with technology that facilitates remote trials satisfactorily. There have been hybrid trials before, with judges and lawyers physically in the courtroom with certain witnesses giving evidence by video conferencing. However, this admiralty trial is one of the first fully remote civil witness hearings in Ireland under the Act.

When safe, many trials will return to traditional courtrooms. However, both hybrid and fully remote hearings are now a reality. When appropriate, remote hearings provide obvious efficiencies and legal costs savings. Justice will benefit from this technological evolution.

Related item: COVID-19: resilience is key to the future of court systems