Remote hearings ‘fragmented’, court users warn

updated on 08 June 2021

Civil court users have described remote hearings taking place during the pandemic as “fragmented” and called for improvements.

The hearings, which are taking place online in England, Wales and Scotland due to the covid-19 restrictions, have been criticised by users as “fragmented and inconsistent”, according to the Law Society Gazette.

Currently, a remote hearing is conducted by either telephone or video conference. Telephone hearings are principally used for simpler procedural hearings, while video conferencing is used for more substantial hearings, including case management hearings, as well as trials and appeals. 

Writing for Gazette Online, Michael Javaherian, vice-chair of the Civil Court Users Association (CCUA), explained that the methods used to deliver remote hearings differ widely. With various platforms including Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Skype being used to conduct remote hearings, parties are required to call the court, supply a phone number to be called by the court, supply an email address to be sent a joining link, or arrange a telephone conference, among other methods. He said: “This fragmentation has presented difficulties since it is sometimes unclear which of the methods shall be used. The problem is compounded by the fact that a number of notices of hearing published and distributed by courts have been ambiguous as to the platform, raising confusion. At other times, notices of hearing have neglected to mention whether or not the hearing is even taking place remotely.” 

According to Javaherian, users are often unable to reach court staff when necessary, or experience slow response times. With some remote hearings having been block-listed, it is unclear to users whether the court will contact them regarding the hearing at all. These findings cast a question mark on the future of remote hearings – even though a “fragmented” hearing is better than no hearing, remote hearings are necessary to maintain the operation of the justice system thus must be deemed fit to do so.

The association approves courts that have developed a consistent approach to virtual hearings. Javaherian commends county courts at Birkenhead and St Helens, which carry out all stage 3 disposal hearings by BT MeetMe. In this system, the court phones the parties, and has a web-based signing-in sheet to collect parties’ details in advance.

While the association wants remote hearings to stay, it calls on HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to ensure notices of hearing clearly state whether a hearing is being held remotely or in-person, and to provide clarity within the notice of hearing on which platform is to be used. This can only be done if the block-listing of remote hearings cease and court staff respond in a quick and helpful manner to civil court users’ queries.

The pandemic has revealed that remote hearings have the potential to enhance access to justice, but this report highlights the significant difference in the experiences of professional and civil court users. If the HMCTS can help iron out some of these technical glitches, remote hearings may have a place in the future.