HMCTS has published guidance HMCTS telephone and video hearings during coronavirus outbreak
“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.
Guidance from the Lord Chief Justice to the wider judiciary encourages the use of telephone and video to support hearings. We have also issued guidance to HMCTS staff encouraging them to maximise use of telephone hearings and video-enabled hearings using our current technology.
The decision to use telephone and video hearings
The decision as to how a hearing is conducted is a matter for the judge, magistrates or panel, who will determine how best to uphold the interests of justice. In considering the suitability of video/audio, judges will consider issues such as the nature of the matters at stake during the hearing; any issues the use of video/audio technology may present for participants in the hearing; any issues around public access to or participation in the hearing.
Using existing technology and making new technology available
We are seeking to make the best possible use of existing technology in the courts. This includes the Justice Video Service in the criminal courts, and provision for audio hearings that exists widely in the civil courts.
We are also rapidly extending our capability. In particular:
- The Justice Video Service (JVS) was designed to work between fixed endpoints (prisons, courts and police stations). We have now begun the process of unlocking JVS so that it can also work with other laptops, which will mean criminal trials with JVS equipment can be joined remotely. At present, we can do this in up to 100 concurrent hearings – we expect to raise this to 500 concurrent hearings over the next seven days. By using this system, as many parties as the judge considers reasonable can join the hearing by video.
- Our audio conferencing system (BT Meet Me), which is widely used in civil courts, and includes the ability to record hearings in a way that meets the standards required of the justice system. We are rapidly increasing the number of licences we have and training staff in use of the system. We can now cover the equivalent of one third of the rooms across the whole court estate, in all jurisdictions. We expect to have complete coverage next week.
- To give us more quick and flexible capacity, we have also activated Skype for Business on all staff and judicial laptops. This change took effect today (18 March) and work is underway to train staff and judges as quickly as possible, as well as testing the technology to ensure it works for user. We expect to start using this at scale very soon. Legal professionals who wish to join hearings remotely may want to install Skype and test it on their own systems if they do not already have it.
The rules on using video and audio technology in courts
Current rules and practice in the civil and family jurisdictions continue. In tribunals, the Senior President of Tribunals is preparing Practice Directions to permit the maximum use of paper determinations and remote hearings where appropriate. In the criminal courts, the use of audio and video links is set out in legislation and there are further measures in the proposed emergency legislation to expand the circumstances when video/audio technology can be used
Requirements relating to the recording of hearings remain unchanged.
The coronavirus bill published by the Department of Health and Social Care expands the availability of video and audio link in court proceedings. This includes:
- allowing specific civil applications (relating to infectious diseases / coronavirus) in the magistrates’ court to take place by phone or by video, should an individual appeal against restriction of movement due to quarantine measures
- expanding the availability of video and audio link in various criminal proceedings, including fully video and audio hearings in certain circumstances
- allowing the public to participate in court and tribunal proceedings through audio and video.
The measures will allow a wider range of proceedings to be carried out by video and audio; and the judiciary will always have the final say in how a hearing is conducted. This lets courts to continue to function and remain open to the public, without the need for participants to attend in person
In considering the use of telephony and video technology, the judiciary will have regard to open justice, as they do now. Public galleries in court rooms will remain open to public access, and dedicated press seats will continue to allow journalists to report on hearings.
Court and tribunal users
Using such technology may be new for some court and tribunal users and we will keep them notified should there be a change in how a hearing is to take place. To join by audio or video, users will need a phone or a computer with internet access, a webcam and microphone. Users will need a quiet space where they will not be disturbed during the hearing.
Video hearings provide an additional channel for conducting a hearing and should be as accessible as possible. But they may not be suitable for everyone.
We are grateful to all those working in, and using courts and tribunals, as we modify our ways of working. We will issue more detailed guidance for participants shortly.