UK courts are aiming to ramp up their video conferencing and remote technology capabilities in order to continue holding trials during the lockdown mandated by the government in response to COVID-19.
Yesterday (24 March), crown court trials across England and Wales were suspended in response to the government’s instruction for stricter social distancing. In a statement, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said this meant pausing hearings was essential. Burnett said arrangements had been made to conduct as many hearings as possible using telephone, video and other technology, and that the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) was “working round the clock” to implement these new measures.
However, he noted that some hearings couldn’t be carried out remotely – “the most obvious being jury trials”.
In a statement, the MoJ said: “Running our courts and tribunals is an essential public service. Audio and video technology has long played a part in the justice system and can now provide particular support during the coronavirus outbreak. We will make as much use of our current technologies as possible, and are working urgently to increase our capacity, so we can keep our courts and tribunals running smoothly.”
Some civil and family courts have already started conducting hearings over Skype, with the first all-Skype trial in the UK conducted last week. The judge, lawyers, 11 witnesses, three experts and two journalists, were able to join the the Court of Protection hearing online through Skype for Business.
Commenting on the trial, John McKendrick QC, a barrister at Outer Temple Chambers, told the Law Gazette: “It was very effective, and allowed for full and fair participation by all parties, using a laptop from their home or office.”
The MoJ wrote in a statement that it plans to make use of its current technology including “the Justice Video Service (JVS) in the criminal courts, and provision for audio hearings that exists widely in the civil courts.”
In addition, it plans to extend its capabilities including the JVS, that “was designed to work between fixed endpoints (prisons, courts and police stations)”, but will additionally be able to “work with other laptops, which will mean criminal trials with JVS equipment can be joined remotely.”
In addition, the audio conferencing system (BT Meet Me), is widely used in civil courts, and includes the ability to record hearings. The MoJ wrote: “We are rapidly increasing the number of licences we have and training staff in use of the system.”
Finally, it wrote: “To give us more quick and flexible capacity, we have also activated Skype for Business on all staff and judicial laptops.”
To keep the wheels of justice turning is of course desirable, but the prospect of a fully-realised remote court system any time soon would appear optimistic given the widely condemned £1.2 billion courts digitisation project that has floundered since its inception in 2015.
The House of Commons Justice report, published in November 2019, criticised the MoJ’s plans to transform the courts system on several grounds, including poor digital skills among court users, limited access and unreliable technology. It noted the additional hindrances of unreliable video technology and woeful WiFi facilities.