Prior to the lockdown almost all hearings were in person hearings. All of that has changed overnight. Virtually all hearings are taking place remotely. In person hearings are now likely only to take place where there are litigants in person or there is a need to give complex evidence.
Many people prepare themselves for their day in court. But what is this actually like when it takes place remotely?
The first thing to say is that remote hearings are not necessarily inferior to in person hearings. Indeed, in person hearings could be a particularly stressful experience.
Many Court buildings are old and struggle to handle large numbers of hearings. For most people, a day in Court would involve sitting in a crowded waiting area nervously waiting for their case to be called. The Court would list more than one hearing at the same time so there was no guarantee that if your hearing was listed for 10am that the hearing would proceed on time. You could find yourself in Court for much of the day waiting for your hearing to take place.
Whilst there were some private meeting rooms, you invariably had to get there early to ensure you reserved a spot. Advisers often found themselves taking instructions while balancing their laptop on their knee or even standing up. People also often found themselves in the same waiting area as the other party, creating an even more stressful situation and making it very difficult to make decisions when asked to do so.
The practicalities of remote hearings
Now, Directions Hearing take place in a telephone hearing and contested Final Hearings on Zoom, Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.
The remote nature of the hearing creates a very different dynamic. You have to ensure that you can take the hearing privately and that no one can be there with you or can overhear the proceedings. The hearings are less fluid and have more structure, which some people find beneficial. Having a hearing via video conferencing can actually be extremely tiring and take longer, especially when there are IT issues.
We are still required to dress smartly for our hearings, but as the Court will only see your top half, wearing a suit to Court may well be a thing of the past.
How can I talk to my legal team privately during a remote hearing?
You will no longer be sitting beside your Barrister passing on instructions in the midst of the hearing. Instead, you will be at home on your own interacting via video call. It can be isolating and you have to be creative about being able to give and take instructions.
Instructions can be taken during the hearing by way of a WhatsApp group. I have also used Zoom – a meeting is left on at all times with the video off and the sound muted when on the call. This enables you to use the chat facility to pass on instructions when needed during the hearing. It also means you can reconvene to have your conference with Counsel and Solicitor easily if there are any breaks during the Court proceedings.
Is this the future?
While there was a push for remote hearings prior to the lockdown, there was with little take up. However, circumstances have forced change upon all Courts. What was considered a rarity is now the norm. It remains to be seen whether it is a permanent shift.