Returning to in person hearings in the Criminal and Coroners’ Courts and the future role of technology
During the COVID-19 lockdown, the majority of Criminal Courts and Coroners’ Courts have been unable to hold physical (i.e. in person) hearings. In order to progress cases, those courts have been holding administrative hearings by way of video conferencing platforms.
As lockdown measures are gradually relaxed, in certain Criminal Courts and Coroners’ Courts where social distancing is possible, physical hearings are being heard in conjunction with video conferencing platforms where necessary so that matters can progress rather than be adjourned to a later date.
In this article we consider examples of the types of measures being implemented to enable physical hearings in Criminal and Coroners’ Courts, and the future use of platforms for video and audio conferencing by the courts.
Measures implemented by the courts
Courts have had to introduce measures to ensure the court and public areas are ‘Covid Secure’ for attendees. By way of example (and potentially subject to variation in different courts) set out below are some of the ‘Covid Secure’ measures we have experienced recently in a Coroner’s Court:
- Upon entry, hand sanitiser was provided and each individual was asked to provide their contact details for the purpose of ‘track and trace’ if necessary.
- Social distancing was observed within the building at all times.
- Parties attending are not always provided with private consultation rooms, as many of these are too small to observe social distancing. Where consultation rooms are available, signs on the door indicate the maximum number of people allowed.
- Parties are positioned in court to ensure two metres in-between all present, including between legal teams and their client(s).
- Each person was provided with their own chair for the duration of the proceedings, which nobody else was permitted to use.
- No hard copy bundles provided by the court. Witnesses are advised to bring their own statements, paperwork and bundle to refer to if required. If a witness forgot, the Coroner brought up relevant documents from the bundle on to a screen. In the Criminal Court this would be by way of the platform ‘click and share’.
Some courts have produced a risk assessment, which may limit the number of attendees in the courtroom at any one time. This means there might be occasions when all attendees cannot be present in the courtroom at all times. In our experience those who cannot be in the courtroom are able to join remotely, whilst positioned at their designated consultation table outside the courtroom.
Prior to any hearing preparation it is key to ensure that all parties, including the court, has everything that will be relied upon in electronic form.
Documents cannot be produced and physically handed out during the course of a hearing due to the risk of COVID-19. Solicitors and Counsel should ensure that everything is provided electronically in good time.
Solicitors should request the relevant links from the court to join electronically in advance of the hearing date and request a copy of the court COVID-19 risk assessment, which will set out how the court intends to manage social distancing within the building as well as the courtroom itself. Consideration must be given to whether any persons attending are vulnerable or apprehensive, and raised with the court in sufficient time so that any issues can be resolved.
As lockdown measures are eased, the Criminal Justice System and Coroners’ Courts are gradually returning back to some form of normality with appropriate measures in place. The use of various platforms has allowed cases to progress remotely and continues to prove to be a useful tool.
It remains to be seen how close technology (for use in remote hearings) will be able take us to the courtroom environment that in person hearings provide, where current experience would suggest that the latter are more conducive to evaluating the evidence of a witness in terms of their body language, facial expressions and the tone of their voice.
The use of technology during the pandemic has demonstrated a persuasive argument for greater utilisation of remote hearings, where appropriate, in the future. Understandably however, technological issues have at times presented challenges for those engaging in remote court hearings and it is hoped that such issues will become increasingly rare as the technology and its adoption develops. Where issues are encountered it is important to plug any technological gaps and ensure that the parties are not disadvantaged.