In accordance with Government guidance, HMCTS has temporarily closed a number of courts and tribunals across the country. As a result, many hearings will now be dealt with via telephone or online video conferencing.
Telephone hearings and the use of video technology for evidence have been available in the HMCTS for a number of years, but have perhaps not been used as widely as they might have been. In light of current events, HMCTS have been working to make these facilities more widely available and it is likely that changes made now may endure beyond the current crisis.
Some key practical points for those participating in remote hearings are set out below :
- HMCTS runs teleconferences through the BTMeetMe service. All participants will be provided with a relevant conference call number.
- Save for a phone, no other equipment is needed.
HMCTS are using two platforms to provide this service, either Skype for Business or Cloud Video Platform (which uses Kinly software). The most commonly used platform is Skype for Business, details of how this specific platform works and our tips are set out below.
Joining the video hearing
- To join the video hearing, you will receive an email from the Court usher with a link to join the meeting.
- To ensure you can enter the meeting, you will need to have the Skype for Business app or software downloaded onto your device. Please note that the type of software will depend on your device. You do not need to set up a Skype for Business account.
- On the date of the hearing you will need to follow the link (either directly from the email or inputting the URL into the Skype for Business software) and enter the meeting as a guest.
- Once a participant has joined the meeting they will be held in a virtual lobby with the other parties until the Judge is ready to commence the hearing.
Practical points to note for participating in video hearing
- Make sure you have the Skype for Business app or software downloaded onto your computer prior to the date of the hearing to ensure that there are minimal issues with access on the day.
- Due to some connectivity issues, HMCTS are trying to limit the number of participants who will be granted video access (ie, those who will be on webcam as well as audio). Liaise directly with the court in relation to video access, particularly if your party requires two or more participants with webcam access (eg, senior and junior counsel). Some parties on the call will have audio access only.
- When signing into the hearing as a 'Guest', we recommend that participants try to identify themselves as clearly as possible (e.g. 'Name (Solicitor/Counsel/Witness)').
- It has been reported that one advantage of online hearings is the 'proximity' (albeit online) to the Judge - facial expressions can be seen more clearly and can be a useful cue.
- The usual formalities of the Court still apply and the 'running order' of a hearing will not change.
- As this is a rapidly developing area for all parties, technical issues are bound to occur and parties (including the Judge) may drop out. HMCTS are live to this and in general parties have been patient and co-operative in waiting until a party rejoins.
- The software only allows one person to speak at a time. Any background noise (such as paper shuffling) may shift the microphone onto a different participant, so each participant should mute audio when not speaking. Using an electronic bundle, rather than a hardcopy, will limit extra noise.
- Communication between a party is also affected; passing post it notes to counsel is not an option, so alternative methods of inter-party communication should be considered prior to the hearing. Text or email messaging could be used, although we suggest discussing this with your presiding Judge, so that he or she does not mistake your visible phone in the hearing as you updating your Facebook status.
- Finally, in the interests of open justice, members of the media and the public are still able to attend virtual hearings (with prior communication with the court). Therefore, if confidentiality is paramount to the matter, the relevant orders should be sought in the usual way and prior to the hearing.
HMCTS and the public in general have shown great adaptability during these unprecedented times. As telephone and video hearings are more widely used in the coming months we expect the process (and hopefully any technical issues) will improve. The feedback we have received so far is that these hearings have been far smoother than anticipated and that all parties have been communicative and co-operative. As the legal landscape and many others rapidly evolve online it could be that virtual hearings (at least for the more straight forward hearings) are here to stay.