Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive HM Courts & Tribunals Service, discusses the challenges and changes to courts during the coronavirus pandemic.
The rapid spread of this global pandemic has undoubtedly impacted every aspect of our lives, as its effects seep into the very fabric of our society. It seems almost unthinkable that the legal world could have changed so dramatically in a few short weeks.
The challenges we’re facing demanded urgent measures to maintain our justice system. A viable justice system is essential to protect the public from crime and disorder, safeguard vulnerable children, and enable critical decisions to continue to be made which affect liberty, safety and livelihoods, as both the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice have made clear.
Working with solicitors, barristers, court staff and the judiciary, we have totally reshaped the way we work, at times changing processes that were steeped in tradition, as well as shifting rapidly to a smaller network of courts and tribunals. Where people still need to come to court, we have taken critical steps to implement effective social distancing measures, as well as creating a clean environment and supporting handwashing and sanitising in our buildings.
Following this guidance is really important to keeping everyone using our buildings safe, and we’re working hard to maintain levels of cleanliness. This includes the introduction of more than 150 additional cleaners into court and tribunal buildings that are open to the public as well as carrying out additional touchpoint cleans throughout the day. Should you notice that standards are not as they should be though, then please report this to a member of court staff.
Nothing we have done has been done alone – it has all relied on partnership with the huge range of those who work in the justice system – everyone from our security staff and cleaners to volunteers who support the courts, and of course, the lawyers without whom the system simply could not function at all.
Thank you for everything you have done, with such flexibility, innovation, resilience and determination, to support the joint justice system response.
The enhanced role of technology
Although audio and video technology has long played a part in the justice system, we have had to very rapidly accelerate that development to provide additional support during the outbreak.
Early on in our response, we had to start by making the best possible use of existing technology, including the Justice Video Service in the criminal courts, and provision for audio hearings that exists widely in the civil courts. We’ve increased the capacity of our existing systems, for example increasing the number of teleconferences we can run using BTMeetMe, a system requiring no more specialist equipment than a phone. With videoconferencing too, we’re using Skype for Business, which was the product already in place within HMCTS and judicial IT systems, to conduct hearings.
We’re now moving beyond ‘use what we’ve got’ to putting in place better, more effective systems wherever we can – learning quickly from all that we’ve seen happen over the last few weeks. We’re introducing the ‘cloud video platform’ (CVP) for hearings, which gives much better links to existing video kit in court; and the virtual videoconferencing ‘rooms’ needed for this are being set up in their hundreds for use across the different jurisdictions.
We are also expanding the capacity of our bespoke ‘full video hearing’ solution, which is tailored to the needs of court hearings rather than meetings, designed particularly for those where everyone is joining by video, and will bring it into wide use as quickly as possible. Hearings held using these systems can be accessed through any laptop with an internet browser, and again don’t require any specialist equipment, or licences.
We’ve published practical guidance for professional and public users on how to join telephone and video hearings. Thanks to the response and regular feedback from solicitors and others working with the technology – much of which comes through my regular meetings with Simon Davis – that guidance continues to be updated as we respond to issues you raise.
Decisions about the continuation and conduct of particular hearings are, of course, matters for the judge, magistrates or panel. The principle of open justice remains an important consideration in judicial decisions to determine how to proceed in any given case (whether that be in-person, supported by audio or video, wholly remotely, on the papers, or to adjourn).
Testing, testing, testing
In normal circumstances, these capabilities would all involve extensive testing, training and gradual roll-out. To respond to the current crisis, we’ve prioritised making them available immediately and will continue to improve how we use them as the weeks progress and according to invaluable feedback from across the profession.
I want to assure you that we will continue to collect data and gather feedback to support that evaluation activity, but will also monitor and keep under review the use of other capabilities such as telephone hearings, and Skype.
We are in the process of scoping more complete research and evaluation activity which will consider two stages: the first will focus on implementation research to understand, iterate and improve key current audio-visual processes; the second stage will evaluate the revised practice.
We published figures last week showing that currently around 85% of the hearings taking place are using audio and video technology, which gives an idea of the scale of the shift that we’ve all had to make in a very short time.
We also recognise, however, that shifting to new ways of working brings a unique set of challenges, not least around ensuring the quality of hearings for everyone involved – parties, advocates, witnesses and court staff.
We’re always keeping an eye out for any new technologies that may have benefits for the justice system, particularly during this period. But it is a balancing act between supporting a defined set of technologies at any one time and creating possible confusion with too many options, or a lack of support.
We want feedback from everyone involved, to help us to improve. Our regular meetings with representatives of the legal profession, including the Law Society, which are more frequent while we deal with the coronavirus outbreak, mean we’re able to listen to your perspectives, hear your concerns and act upon them swiftly. Please do keep feeding through your views and suggestions.
Global justice response
I think it’s also important to remember that we’re not alone in what we’re trying to do. The challenges of maintaining justice systems in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic are being considered across the world and there is much to learn from other countries’ experiences and good practice.
In this context HMCTS was pleased to support the recent launch of Remote Courts Worldwide, which shares experiences of developing remote alternatives to traditional court and tribunal hearings in physical buildings.
For many contributors to the site the speed, new methods and techniques are being developed at a pace none of us imagined would have possible just a few weeks ago. As different jurisdictions move into more stable phases of delivery, we’ll be encouraging them to share any evaluation, as each in turn considers longer-term sustainability of the current measures.
A collective effort
I know these are challenging times for all of us, and I’m proud that people from all parts of the system are pulling together to keep our courts and tribunals service working. Solicitors and legal professionals play a vital role in our justice system and I’ve been hugely grateful to you for the way the profession, as a whole, has responded to the crisis.
Thank you once again for all you have done.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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