As Covid-19 holds diminishing sway over public policy, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service has published a qualitative analysis on the pros and cons of remote and hybrid hearings in the Courts Service.
The overall findings of the report state that the practice of remote hearings has been an overall success, with court staff, legal professionals, and others recognising the increased efficiency and accessibility afforded to them by the practice.
Many of the respondents promoted the prospect of retaining remote court hearings as Northern Ireland removes the Covid-19 restrictions and the associated change in work practices.
Adapting to new practices
Whilst there were high levels of satisfaction among participants over the running of remote services, there was a wide acknowledgement that there needs to be a more formalised process to determine how and when a case should be heard remotely.
Currently, judges in Northern Ireland decide whether a case will be conducted remotely on a case-by-case basis, with no formalised structure or clarity for the wider public as to how this decision is arrived at.
One respondent stated: “The biggest problem is a lack of consistency across the courts. There does not seem to be a policy about where and when remote hearings are appropriate.”
Another opined: “Some judges are receptive to remote hearings whereas others are very reluctant. There needs to be some uniformity in the approach to remote hearings.”
Participants broadly agreed on a cohort of court cases which should consistently be conducted on an in-person basis, including jury trials, very serious cases, resolutions, or complex matters which require oral advocacy.
As the Courts Service evolves, arguably its most important consideration will be acquiring a balance between ensuring that business is conducted smoothly, consistently, and efficiently, whilst at the same time protecting citizens’ rights to the highest standard of advocacy to which they are entitled.
The Covid-19 lockdowns created a substantial backlog in the courts system, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. Consequently, there is demand for optimal efficiency with the ultimate aim of ensuring that this backlog gets reduced over time.
Respondents consistently praise the efficiency which has been unleashed by the practice of remote hearings, and, despite the potential problems outlined, were in favour of retaining the practice and emphasised the potential for an efficient courts system.
The report states: “Working remotely meant there was less ‘waiting around courts’ and a real sense that it saved time for all parties involved including people that perhaps are harder to reach, have busy lifestyles, or caring responsibilities. People could continue with their working day or their daily activities.”
It also outlines the experiences of many participants who believed that the remote hearings helped them to acquire a better balance with their busy personal working and care schedules, allowing them to minimise travelling times and be present for their responsibilities outside the courts system.
One respondent stated: “Very quick turnaround on cessation of contact case. Application was lodged on Thursday, heard on Tuesday. Application is easier, there is a quick turnaround and didn’t affect job as majorly as it would have (in terms of time off work etc.).”
Efficiency was also purported in that less paper waste was used due to the digitalisation of courts services, meaning that legal notices could be sent online and served remotely, rather than a physical letter being sent out.
One respondent also emphasised that there were monetary savings for the Courts Service, due to the reduction in postal costs from serving physical legal notices.
In addition, there was a wide consensus that remote hearings can have a complementary effect in terms of the efficiency of wider public services, including those of the social care sector.
One participant explains: “Social workers struggled with the demands of attending court three times a week. With significant staffing pressures, it is important that we can monopolise our time. We can be available to appear in different courthouses in the same day if we are attending remotely.”
If remote hearings are a practice which are to be a permanent fixture in the operational procedure of Northern Ireland’s courts, there are technological difficulties and challenges around digital accessibility which must be overcome.
The report states that a minority of participants found that the technology currently in place “can be fallible at times”, and that it was “not sophisticated”.
Participants also noted arbitrary problems such as camera angles which can make it unclear whom is speaking in in the courtroom as the time of broadcast.
Additionally, ensuring that citizens are empowered with adequate resources to access remote services, in addition to broadband throughout Northern Ireland that is of an acceptable standard, will be a top challenge if the practice is to remain beyond Covid.