The beginning of the end of a paper-based Court system?
In July 2016, the Civil Courts Structure Review prepared by Lord Justice Briggs proposed a number of radical changes, aimed at modernising the civil court system in England and Wales by just April 2020. The plans included the introduction of a pilot “online court” and also a framework for moving away from a paper-based system in the civil courts.
At the time they were introduced, Lord Justice Briggs’ proposals were perceived as highly ambitious, with it assumed that their success would rely heavily on significant behavioural changes from those working within the legal profession and the judiciary. However, in response to the lockdown situation the UK currently finds itself in, courts across England and Wales have had to adapt quickly, adopting electronic processes and remote working practices, in many ways reflecting or accelerating Lord Briggs’ recommendations.
How are our local courts adapting?
It is now over 7 weeks since the UK-wide lockdown was first introduced on 23 March 2020. Both from our teams who work at Court, and anecdotally, we are hearing that local courts have been coping well. Remote hearings, via telephone, are becoming increasingly commonplace, with use of electronic court bundles and the issuing of cases online. Lincoln County Court, Family Court and Crown Court, although closed to the public, are staffed so that judges can continue to work remotely. Lincoln Magistrates Court remains open to the public, along with a list of other key courts across the country so that essential face-to-face hearings can continue to take place.
The Ministry of Justice and HMCTS has published a Courts and Tribunals tracker list, indicating which courts remain either open to the public, staffed only or suspended for both staff and public, which can be accessed here.
We have noted that many CCMCs (costs and case management conferences) and detailed assessments (hearings dealing solely with legal costs disputes) have been going ahead remotely, arguably much helped by the roll out of the new electronic format bill of costs, which was formally introduced in April 2018. There is also suggestion that local courts will start making increasing use of video hearings, particularly as, following the latest government advice, we now know that easing of lockdown restrictions are going to be cautious and piecemeal, with social distancing likely to be with us for some time yet.
What will courts look like in future?
There are several positive indications suggesting that there has been an embracement of virtual and electronic means of conducting court hearings in our local area and further afield. In addition to an acknowledgment for improvements and further adaptations required, as social distancing measures continue. It remains to be seen how much of these new ways of working will be retained in the courts when the crisis is over.
However, there are certainly hopeful indicators, as well as unique opportunities for court IT systems and ways of remote working to be trialled and perfected, in this current ongoing and uncertain period.