Court on camera

6 April 2020

Kate Miller, Partner

Every industry is having to effect rapid change in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown and the legal sector is no different. Our court system, with all its antiquated charm, has been at the forefront of this push, fast-tracked into embracing the new normal.

The justice system is undoubtedly struggling to cope with the challenges posed by the pandemic. The enormous backlog of cases will be increased further as all new jury trials are postponed and only 157 ‘priority’ courts remain open to deal with the most pressing of cases. Prisons are overflowing with inmates awaiting trial and resources are stretched to breaking point as probation officers attempt to monitor those prisoners who have been released early to ease over-crowding.  Last week the Scottish government said it intended to press ahead with trials without juries ending over 800 years of trial by jury in the country. The widespread backlash resulted in a sharp U turn and a promise of a review later this month.

The guidance from the Ministry of Justice calling for hearings to take place online where possible was welcome news. Video evidence from prison inmates or in the family courts is nothing new, but a major shift into the digital world has always been something for the future. That future has arrived rather sooner than any of us expected.

Must-see TV?

At the end of March the emergency coronavirus legislation paved the way for the first High Court trial to be streamed live on YouTube, in the $530m case by the Republic of Kazakhstan and its national bank against Moldovan businessman Anatolie Stati and others.  Having watched some of the livestream, I confess that it wasn’t long before I switched back to a re-run of SuitsRumpole of the Bailey this was not, but it was interesting to see how dexterity with a mouse and a tidy study may become more cherished advocacy skills than rhetorical flourish and theatrics.

On this note, I enjoyed Jeremy Brier’s account of what it is like to take part in a “virtual” Commercial Court hearing: “My pretrial checklist is now: 1) check the kids haven’t hidden musical wands in the room; 2) check they haven’t hidden talking toys; 3) check they understand not to enter the room; 4) locate the “cut power” switch in case of 1 to 3 occurring.”

By stepping up to meet the challenge we all face, the courts system is undoubtedly being dragged into the 21st century, and with less kicking and screaming than we might have expected. In the long term, that could bring positive change. Whilst claimants and victims may feel deprived of their “day in court” as more hearings move on-line, removing the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of court rooms and unnecessary pomp could help increase public trust and encourage positive improvements in diversity.  On a more prosaic level, the cost and efficiency savings alone mean it is unlikely we will ever return fully to the way things were before.

Public trust remains a priority

In January I suggested that the balance between open justice and privacy would be a theme for the year. Whilst I didn’t envisage what has since ensued, the importance of the topic is more pressing than ever. It is critical that the public and the press still have access to hearings so that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done.  Maintaining public trust in our legal system remains a priority despite the challenges.

Photo credit: USA Network

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