So. Last week saw a full week of home working and following the Government’s advice on working remotely where possible. With a full diary of hearings – how did that go?
It seems that other courts and decision-making panels have taken their lead from the Court of Protection and taken a pragmatic and flexible approach.
First-tier Tribunal – Health Education and Social Care Chamber
Last Monday we began a five day hearing in the First-tier Tribunal. Because the case related to a care facility, the Tribunal accepted that it was not safe for individual witnesses to travel into central London to give evidence in person. Instead, they quickly set up their ‘Virtual Courtroom’ service. All parties were able to connect (with some technical challenges to start with) and the hearing began with everyone safely at home / in their usual workplace. When the case settled later that day (as a result of long running negotiations) – with journey times eradicated, everyone could immediate resume other tasks.
Leading counsel commented after the hearing “I think the MOJ online court room is the future …”.
Two days later, on behalf of an NHS client, we convened a full day multi-party (including a litigant in person) panel hearing via Microsoft Teams in order to resume an adjourned hearing without further delay. Again, making use of technology allowed the case to proceed – avoiding the loss of significant progress made to date. This was particularly important given other significant calls on the time of the NHS panel members.
A panel member commented after the hearing: “I too was impressed with the way this worked for an oral hearing and think this could be the direction of travel…”.
On the same day, another member of our team represented a NHS client at an inquest in the local coroner’s court entirely by telephone, with the Coroner and the family in the court room, all witnesses and the Mills & Reeve advocate dialled into a telephone conference facility. The Coroner determined that any loss of quality in the evidence was more than made up for in expediency.
Evidence was taken from each witness in turn, all of whom gave an affirmation to the Coroner to tell the truth. Six different witnesses gave live evidence with other statements being read, before the Coroner delivered his conclusion. The benefits of the flexibility of a virtual hearing was rammed home mid-afternoon. The Coroner, having identified during the hearing a further witness who could assist his inquiry, was able to make contact, summons him to appear, and take his evidence (by phone) within the space of 90 minutes!
All involved were very relieved to have avoided a difficult and tragic matter being delayed. A full fair and fearless inquiry was completed.
As necessity is the mother of all invention – these cases were forced to proceed in less than ideal circumstances – and in the face of some significant scepticism. However, having been forced to engage, just how effective they were, even with just audio, was a revelation to many of those involved. The flexibility remote solutions offer was an added bonus.
It is clear that, even when things return to normal, court hearings will never be the same again.
Duncan Astill and Amanda Narkiewicz