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HMCTS’s video hearings win inspectors’ approval, but judges harbour concerns

A video hearings service rolled out during the coronavirus crisis is robust and simple to use, according to a review of nearly two dozen cases.

HMCTS’s adoption of video conferencing has been accelerated during lockdown as judges attempt to minimise disruption to legal proceedings.

The London School of Economics academics who produced the assessment reviewed 23 cases and observed six that were “unable to proceed due to technology problems”.

But the report said that users interviewed for the review welcomed the convenience of the technology and some said they found it less stressful than appearing in court in person.

However, there are no plans to roll out the technology, which is part a delayed £1.2bn courts digitisation programme, to jury trials and the ultimate decision on whether to use video-conferencing in hearings is a matter for the judiciary.

The report noted that “judges were effective in managing the video hearings, and users respected the formality of the proceedings. Judges adapted to the video format well and made sure that parties could hear and see one another and that turntaking conventions were adhered to.”

But judges interviewed for the report said that access to video hearings “should be increased but not as a substitute to physical hearings” and many said that “they prefer in-person hearings and that it was more effective to conduct hearings in a physical court room”.

According to the report, “reasons included: the ease of managing a physical courtroom and dynamics between parties, the gravitas of parties being physically present in a courtroom together, the security of a courtroom and not having to rely on technology and the delays technological problems cause”.

The judges saw most value in using the technology for people who struggle to travel to court or live overseas.

Susan Acland-Hood, HMCTS chief executive, said: “I welcome this report and its valuable assessment of the pilot of video hearings taking place across civil, family and tax courts and tribunals. It will add to the existing evidence base on video hearings and enable us to make further improvements.

“Audio and video technology has long played a part in the justice system and is a crucial tool in maintaining our justice system during the pandemic and beyond.”