Britain's courts lurch towards Skype and conference calls for trials as COVID-19 distancing kicks in

Coronavirus forces judges to join the 21st century more or less overnight

The Lord Chief Justice, Baron Burnett of Maldon
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, cancelled all new jury trials starting from today onwards

Britain's courts have declared they will start holding trials and hearings through video calling – although they appear rather ill-equipped for doing so.

As the UK struggles to get to grips with government advice to go home, stay home and only leave those four walls for truly essential journeys, Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service has told lawyers and judges that they need to starting using Skype instead of trudging into cramped and dirty court buildings.

In a statement, the MoJ said: "We have put in place arrangements to use telephone, video and other technology to continue as many hearings as possible remotely. We will make best possible use of the equipment currently available; and are working nonstop to update and add to that."

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The coronavirus outbreak has sped up HMCTS's existing and controversial £1.2bn plans to replace criminal trials with video conference calls. Those plans have been delayed amid the usual public sector overspending and inefficiencies, with MPs criticising what little progress has been made so far in a report published in November.

HMCTS currently has three main video conferencing systems for courtroom use: the Justice Video Service, which was a secure(ish) system intended to be used between fixed endpoints such as prisons and Crown courts; BT Meet Me, its approved audio conferencing system; and Skype for Business, which is intended to be used by judges on their HMCTS-issue laptops.

"To give us more quick and flexible capacity, we have also activated Skype for Business on all staff and judicial laptops,” said HMCTS’ online guidance. “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 users. We expect to start using this at scale very soon.”

However, conference calls present a problem for the open justice principle, the century-old notion that anyone can walk in off the street to sit in a courtroom's public gallery and watch justice taking place. The court service would only say: "Public galleries in court rooms will remain open to public access, and dedicated press seats will continue to allow journalists to report on hearings."

Ian Murray of the Society of Editors, representing national newspaper editors, warned: "Where possible, the media should be enabled to listen remotely and HMCTS should continue to extend the use of telephone, video and other technology to maintain access."

All new jury trials have been halted on the order of the Lord Chief Justice, the top judge of England and Wales, while it looks likely that civil courts will shift to video and phone hearings instead of assembling in county courts and the High Court's two main London buildings.

As a sign of how far standards are already slipping in Britain's highly small-c conservative courts thanks to video tech, Lord Justice Fulford, vice-president of the Court of Appeal's criminal division, said in a statement to barristers: "Advocates linking remotely need not 'rise' when the court assembles etc."

The Register will be test-driving some of the new open justice measures for the press in two cases of interest due to be heard over the next 10 days.

Meanwhile, across the pond, US federal judges all over the country are having to balance "access to justice with public health concerns as COVID-19 spreads," Law360 reports. It opined that the "caseload crisis could outlive the pandemic." US district judge Denise Page Booth, chief judge of the Eastern District of Michigan, told the legal newswire: "This is just an extraordinary time... When Hurricane Katrina hit, for example, we could move criminals to other jurisdictions. We don't have that [now]. This is pervasive across our whole country." ®

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