Courts make use of tech to hold remote hearings due to Covid-19

The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary will increase the use of technology in court proceedings as emergency legislation is being drafted to expand powers to allow criminal courts to hold remote hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic

Courts across the country will aim to maintain services during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic by using technology to allow for remote hearings.

The coronavirus outbreak is affecting court operations everywhere, which means “it is not realistic to suppose that it will be business as usual in any jurisdiction”, according to the Lord Chief Justice, Ian Burnett.

The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary is working with the Ministry of Justice (MoD) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to “work through the implications” of the outbreak.

In a statement, Burnett said that “given the rapidly evolving situation, there is an urgent need to increase the use of telephone and video technology immediately to hold remote hearings where possible”.

He added that emergency legislation is currently being drafted “which is likely to contain clauses that expand the powers in criminal courts to use technology in a wider range of hearings”.

The courts system is in the midst of a huge digital overhaul. The ambitious £1bn programme to overhaul the courts through the use of technology aims to introduce online services, digital case files and use video technology in court hearings through a common platform, allowing the sharing of information between HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. 

A National Audit Office (NAO) report in May 2018 found that the programme was facing a “daunting challenge” in delivering the technical and cultural change necessary to the court system, adding that HMCTS has made “less progress overall than it had expected to at this stage” and has already had to revise its timetable.

In July 2018, the Public Accounts Committee published a report criticising the programme, saying it had “little confidence” in its success, as it was quickly falling behind on its deadlines.

HMCTS has also rolled out a new digital court system, which it says has saved more than 100 million sheets of paper. By April 2019, more than 35,000 divorce applications had been filed using the online system, rather than physically going through the courts.

Its online civil money claims service has also seen success, with claims that used to take up to 15 days now being able to be processed in 10 minutes.

Read more about IT in the justice system

  • The MoJ’s CDIO, Tom Read, is keen on doing his bit to tear down the Whitehall silos, creating collaborative, simple and effective digital services for staff and the public.
  • A Commons Select Committee report has voiced a number of concerns about the ongoing transformation efforts led by the Ministry of Justice and called for actions such as maintenance of non-digital services.
  • Significant IT issues at the HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) have caused chaos across the UK’s courts as users have been unable to connect to the network and use IT systems that require access to it. 
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