Bar Council Calls for Consistency and Investment in Remote Hearings

Bar Council Calls for Consistency and Investment in Remote Hearings

The Bar Council has issued a call for greater consistency in remote hearings and increased investment in court technology based on findings from a new report on the administration and delivery of remote justice.

The report, titled "A Lens on Justice: The Move to Remote Justice," presents the first extensive evaluation of remote hearings in England and Wales from the primary perspective of legal professionals.

Drawing on HMCTS data from 2020 to early 2023 and insights from five Bar Council surveys, the report highlights several key areas that could be improved and reformed:

1. Barristers’ Experience and Views

A significant portion of barristers (49%), expressed a desire for increased use of remote hearings, acknowledging their benefits. However, there is a call for more consistency and clarity in their application. Particularly in publicly funded legal practices like crime and family law, enthusiasm for remote hearings varies significantly across different courts.

2. Technology and Administration

There has been notable progress in the technological infrastructure supporting remote hearings. The percentage of barristers experiencing technical problems with video platforms dropped from 77% in 2021 to just over a third in 2023. Despite this improvement, the report emphasises the need for further investment to enhance the reliability and admin of remote hearings.

3. Monitoring and Data Collection

The Bar Council criticised HMCTS for inadequate data collection, which hampers thorough monitoring and evaluation of remote hearings' impact. The report urges HMCTS to commit to regular publication of relevant data to facilitate better oversight and continuous improvement.

4. Decline in Remote Hearings

The report notes a significant decline in the number of remote hearings, from 58% during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic to 25% in the latest available data from last year. This decline is seen as a potential setback in the efforts to modernise the justice system.

5. Judicial Endorsement

The findings align with recent revisions of the Lord Chief Justice’s Guidance on Remote Attendance by Advocates in the Crown Court and the Lady Chief Justice's judgment in R v Ng and Another [2024] EWCA Crim 493, which advocate for more consistent practices to enhance the efficiency and productivity of legal proceedings.

Responses to the Report

Sam Townend KC, Chair of the Bar Council, emphasised the need for predictable and consistent use of remote hearings, stating: "Remote hearings could be used more regularly where it is efficient to do so and can play a part in bearing down on court delays and backlogs."

He acknowledged that while remote hearings offer significant benefits, particularly in reducing travel and associated costs, certain types of hearings, especially those involving complex evidence or case resolution, are better conducted in person to ensure justice is properly served.

Hundreds of barristers left comments via the surveys, reflecting on their experiences and making suggestions for improvement. One barrister said,

"I think that remote hearings have huge benefits but are not always used for the right hearings. By way of example, I am commonly required to travel for two- or three-hour hearings in the county court for matters on the small claims track with no substantial witness evidence. By contrast, I regularly conduct four-day discrimination trials remotely. The practices are inconsistent and often illogical."

Key Statistics:

The volume of remote hearings fell from 58% in 2021 to 25% in 2023, and the incidence of technical problems with video platforms decreased from 77% to 35% during the same period. Regarding remote hearings, 49% of barristers believe they should be used more frequently, 38% think the current frequency is appropriate, 8% prefer less frequent use, 1% oppose their use entirely, and 4% are unsure.

Barristers in crime and family law are more supportive of increasing remote hearings compared to those in other practice areas, while London-based barristers are less supportive compared to their counterparts in the North West and East of England.

Recommendations

The Bar Council calls on HMCTS to, “improve data collection and regularly publish data on remote hearings,” as well as, “support the judiciary in periodically reviewing protocols to ensure consistent application of remote hearings.”

Similarly, they have urged the Ministry of Justice to evaluate the potential justice outcomes and procedural impacts of remote hearings, invest significantly in the technology and support systems for remote hearings and consider the views of professional court users in future planning.

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