Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has published new guidelines on the use of telephone and video hearings during the coronavirus outbreak with specific guidance on journalistic access to public and remote hearings.
HMCTS has confirmed that with many hearings in the Criminal and Magistrates’ Courts now taking place remotely, journalists should be allowed to dial-into proceedings where possible and transcripts and notes of hearings should be provided to the media upon request.
The confirmation comes after it was announced last week that a network of priority courts will remain open during the coronavirus pandemic to make sure the justice system continues to operate effectively.
HMCTS has confirmed that it remains “committed to promoting media access to the work of courts and tribunals” and that the Courts service will enable accredited journalists to attend proceedings at priority courts in line with precautions in place to enable social distancing. Journalists could also request transcripts or notes of proceedings and should be allowed to observe hearings remotely where possible.
The guidance states: “Open justice is a fundamental principle in our courts and tribunals system, and will continue to be so as we increase the use of audio and video technology. In considering the use of telephony and video technology, the judiciary will have regard to the principles of open justice, as they do now.”
The guidance outlines: “For physical hearings, even when many of the participants join remotely, accredited media will continue to have access to dedicated press seats as reflected in current HMCTS media guidance although current arrangements will follow wider public health advice relating to social distancing.
“Where accredited journalists wish to report on proceedings remotely then they should put in a request to the relevant court as set out above.”
The Guidance went on to point to the Society’s coverage last week of some early examples where courts have enabled the media to have remote telephone and video access to hearings. This included a legal first in which the Old Bailey allowed journalists to cover criminal cases from home.
HMCTS has also announced the launch today (30 March) of a ‘Remote Courts Worldwide’ website designed to help the global community of justice workers – judges, lawyers, court officials, litigants, court technologists – to share their experiences of ‘remote’ alternatives to traditional court hearings.
Chief Executive Susan Acland-Hood said: “We’re increasing use of video & audio hearings and welcome this initiative to share our expertise & draw on the experiences of other justice systems across the world responding to the crisis.”
HMCTS has confirmed that the use of video and telephone technology during hearings would ordinarily involve extensive testing, training and a slow roll-out. Given what it described as the current, “unprecedented, public health emergency” it will be prioritising making these capabilities available now, and will continue to improve how they are used as the weeks progress.
The guidance is available here.