Remote access to court hearings should continue post-pandemic, says courts correspondent

Posted on: September 9, 2020 by Claire Meadows

A plan should be put in place in the coming months to facilitate the continued use of post-pandemic remote court hearings for the benefit of open justice, it has been claimed.

Speaking to the Society of Editors, Tristan Kirk, Courts Correspondent at the Evening Standard said that the continued use of remote hearings post-pandemic would help to build on and protect the open justice gains that have come out of the Covid-19 crisis.

He said: “Generally the courts have been historically slow at adapting to modern technology and there doesn’t appear to have been a tremendous amount of thought put into what would happen if in-person hearings were rendered impossible for some reasons.

“But from what amounted to a standing start, HMCTS and the judiciary should be applauded for relatively swiftly embracing the idea of remote hearings and putting up very few obstacles to making it a reality.

“There is no plan in place at present for post-pandemic remote hearings, specifically those that include reporters, and I believe one is needed within the next few months to protect the open justice gains that have been made.” 

Kirk’s comments come as the Ministry of Justice this week announced a Criminal Courts Recovery Plan and £80m investment in tackling the backlog of cases in the Criminal Courts. Measures announced included the opening of 8 new ad-hoc  Nightingale Courts in September and October to hear additional cases, the employment of 1,600 court staff to support recovery measures and an increase in video technology to allow more cases to be heard remotely. A controversial decision to extend Custody Time Limits – the duration by which a person suspected of a crime can be held in custody before trial – was also announced.

This week Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) confirmed that, to date, over 30,000 hearings have been conducted using a Cloud Video Platform across Crown and magistrates’ courts. Capacity has been rapidly increased for participants to join hearings remotely and through the Technology Enabled Justice Group, which includes representatives from across the Criminal Justice System, HMCTS assures that it continues to explore the use of video for additional hearing types as agreed with the judiciary.

Highlighting the benefits of remote hearings, Kirk told the Society that allowing reporters to continue to cover cases remotely – even after the Covid-19 pandemic has passed – would greatly benefit open justice.

He said: “One of the upsides that has emerged in the mass rollout of video hearings is that a reporter can actually cover more cases than if they were in the traditional in-person setting.

“For example, I have in a single day covered hearings in the High Court, at the Old Bailey, Harrow crown court, and Kingston crown court. If I had been required to attend them all, I would have had to choose two, or even just one, of the four. Some of the hearings I’m talking about only last 15-20 minutes, they are procedural in nature, but can potentially be invaluable to drop in on ‘virtually’.”

There are obvious drawbacks for reporters related to remote hearings, he said, including the lack of interaction with lawyers and court staff, occasional limitations on audio and visual quality, and access to documents, but in the context of a pandemic, the technology has enabled a semblance of open justice and court coverage to continue to be maintained he said.

Looking to the future, Kirk added that the MoJ’s announcement of more money for technology seemed, on face value, to be a positive step and that allowing journalists to continue to access hearings remotely post-pandemic would have no negative impact on the court.

He said: “Not every courtroom is equipped with video tech, so this is something that should be aimed for.

“Unfortunately, there are dark clouds that may be forming on the horizon. Some reporters have begun to experience judicial push-back on the idea of virtual hearings, being required to attend in person even when remote attendance would make infinitely more sense. The concept of a barrister attending remotely is markedly different to the concept of a journalist attending remotely, and at the moment, I don’t believe some judges are properly assessing the difference. To allow a reporter to attend remotely could have a great impact on open justice, no negative impact on the court, and should be seen in that context.”

An update on HMCTS’ response for criminal courts in England and Wales can be found here.