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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Virtual Courts: The Judicial System’s Response to Covid-19

By Jemima Gravatt

Writing in January 2022, in the wake of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, if you were to enter a court, you would be required to wear a face mask (unless exempt), you would find screens or barriers in between the jury members in a criminal trial, and the court room would have ventilation in place to insure everybody’s safety. Over the course of the pandemic, as with every other arena of public life, the courts have had to continuously adapt. How did the court implement technology into its functioning? And how has this impacted, and will continue to impact, the administration of justice in the UK?


On 23 March 2020, courts nationwide began novelly to hear cases remotely. Courts used various audio and video platforms which was buttressed and improved with the enacting of the Coronavirus Act 2020. Through the live-streaming of the Court of Appeal’s trials and the facilitation of media access to the trials by the HM Courts and Tribunals Service, the court has been able to maintain its public functioning.


However, it has not all been smooth sailing. Courts have been presented with new issues in order to maintain fair hearings. For those with disabilities, as well as victims of domestic abuse and those who require an interpreter, issues of holding a fair hearing have been raised. For example, in the US, there was the harrowing instance of a Zoom hearing in which an alleged victim was in the defendant’s house whilst the hearing was taking place.[1] In order to revert these issues, the court has allowed reversion to in-person trials at the judge’s discretion, and where needed, hybrid trials may take place to allow flexibility in which parties shall come to court.


Barristers have reported considerable changes to their work life. Hardwicke barrister, Andy Creer, talked to the Legal Cheek about the challenges brought by online advocacy.[2] Firstly, barristers are required to have two or three screens as a minimum and all the paperwork ordinarily is transferred to long electronic bundles which has significantly eschewed the ordinary set-up of the profession. Secondly, and most importantly, communication is worsened. In the losing out of face-to-face contact with clients prior to a trial, as well as losing the spontaneity arising from visual cues and eye contact, the altered arrangements have made a lawyer’s job harder and changed the dynamic of the court.


The movement to online hearings has had the prominent effect of extenuating pre-existing problems. Lord Hodge of the Supreme Court reported on causes of this increased backlog from increased tiredness and hence longer breaks, to the adjournment of seven cases, in part due to the fact that parties were not able to use the videoconferencing facilities. [3] In April 2019, at the pandemic’s peak, many courts did not sit at all. The particular problem involves criminal trials due to the required presence of a jury: in ‘England and Wales in the Crown Court there were about 37,000 outstanding cases in December 2019 but by August 2020 that figure had risen to over 47,000.’[4] It appears that despite the courts’ adaptability, backlog has only, and unavoidably, worsened.


However, there have been opportunities brought about by the requirement to adapt. The government’s pre-existing plan to digitalise the judicial system has, through necessity, occurred at a much faster rate than it would have done without the pandemic. Lord Hodge reported that the mandatory online filing system brought about by the pandemic means that the judicial system may be able to be conducted without paper which will have economic and environmental benefits. The justice system will also be able to work remotely for case management business. Furthermore, at a local level, inconvenience and expense of travel will be able to be mitigated through the availability of online courts.[5]



 

[1] Hannah Knowles, ‘A Zoom hearing for her domestic abuse case went viral. Now people are blaming her, she says.’ (12 March 2021) https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/03/12/mary-lindsey-coby-harris-zoom-hearing/ accessed 3 January 2022.

[2] Adam Mawardi, ‘The challenges ahead for online courts’ (13 May 2020) https://www.legalcheek.com/lc-careers-posts/the-challenges-ahead-for-online-courts/accessed 3 January 2022.

[3] Lord Hodge, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, ‘Covid, continuity and change: the courts’ response to the pandemic’ British Irish Commercial Bar Association Annual Law Forum (5 November 2020) 4. https://www.supremecourt.uk/docs/BICBA%20Annual%20Law%20Forum%20%20lecture%2011.20.pdf [4] (n 2) 10

[5] (n 2)


 

Bibliography


Statute:

  • Coronavirus Act 2020

Government reports:

  • Justice, ‘JUSTICE Covid-19 Response’



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