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COVID-19 and virtual court hearings: Top tips

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Like the rest of the country, COVID-19 has forced the legal profession and court system to adapt working methods to accommodate the restrictions that were placed on everyone. Courts across England have sought to remain active mainly via the use of remote hearings (telephone and video/hybrid).

Clarion have been involved in several virtual hearings through Skype, in both the Technology and Construction Court (TCC)  and County Court Money Claims Centre (CCMCC), where hearings would ordinarily be heard by way of oral hearing. These are both hearings and trials. In this blog, we set out our top tips to ensure a smooth-running virtual hearing.

  1. Always ensure you are prepared to fully adhere to any notice/order of the court. – e.g. we have recently had a virtual hearing transferred into a different court and heard physically.
  2. Contact the court to confirm the platform for the hearing, Skype for Business/Zoom/Microsoft Teams. This is extremely important as we slowly move out of lockdown.
  3. Once you have confirmed the platform to be used, check the parties and witnesses have the required technology available to attend said virtual hearing. If they do not, it is in your interest to make the court aware and see if any other measures can be put in place. Could your client/witnesses attend your office and use your facilities (socially distanced) to attend? Do not assume that the court will just relist the matter. If you have concerns, make the appropriate application to the court to adjourn/change the mode of hearing.
  4. Ensure the court has all the required papers. It is no longer a case of passing papers to the clerk to let the judge have sight of these. To avoid any delay to the hearing in emailing across any further documents such as schedules of costs, ensure all documents are served and filed in accordance with the order and directions of the court.
  5. Ensure you obtain counsel’s proposed method of communication during the hearing. This could be email/Whatsapp/iMessage group. Everyone has their own preference.
  6. TEST TEST TEST – Ensure you have a dummy run of the hearing if possible. The judge’s clerk in some courts arrange a dummy run. If this does not happen, ensure you contact the other side to arrange a dummy run between you both. You can ensure all parties can attend without difficulty on the court’s required platform.
  7. Set up your virtual courtroom. If you have the instructing party or witnesses attending your office or joining remotely, ensure you/they have made the proper measures for the video aspect of the call i.e. set up in a quiet location away from other staff who may be working as normal. Limit all background noise by use of earphones where possible.   
  8. Provide the court with contact details of all parties involved. We have experienced loss of connection from both the court and our counsel. It is important the court can contact you immediately and arrange for the hearing to resume.
  9. Ensure the instructing solicitor for both parties attends the virtual hearing. If counsel loses connection or for any reason is unable to communicate, it is useful for each party to have a second individual on the call who can communicate with the court to ensure the hearing resumes as quickly and effectively as possible.
  10. Bundles – Ensure all parties and each witness has access to the court bundle and required material. It is very hard to cross-examine a witness who has not yet seen the trial bundle and cannot be guided to the evidence in question. Decide beforehand whether each person needs a physical bundle or is able to view it on a computer screen.
  11. When not speaking, mute your microphone. Comments made can be heard by the judge so refrain from speaking unless you are required to give evidence or advocate.
  12. Ensure you familiarise yourself with muting and unmuting. Otherwise you may find that you have to repeat yourself as you had left yourself on mute. 
  13. Disable your video unless you are counsel, or you are instructed to enable your video by the court. Disabling your video improves the stability of the call and can allow for smoother running without distraction. In a recent hearing, counsel was distracted when giving his skeleton arguments, as were other parties to the hearing, by the reaction from the defendant.
  14. Dress as though you are attending physical court regardless of your role in the hearing. You may be required to communicate by video directly to the judge. Yes, this does happen!
  15. Use multiple screens if you have the equipment to do so. Have the virtual hearing on one screen and the bundle on the second. An alternative is to print any e-bundle or trial bundle if you can do so. This clears a second screen for communication directly with counsel/parties.
  16. Set an out of office. Make your colleagues and family (if working from home) aware that you are not to be disturbed throughout the hearing.
  17. Do not comment on any party to the call. You may be muted, you may not. The court has the ability as host to mute and unmute parties. Always be respectful to all parties to the call.
  18. Be patient. The court is learning as are we and each hearing throws up its own difficulty with technology, be patient and work together.

Disclaimer: Anything posted on this blog is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any general or specific matter. Please refer to our terms and conditions for further information. Please contact the author of the blog if you would like to discuss the issues raised.