Increased use of Virtual Courts
The Chief Justice has indicated that more use of Virtual Courts and the extended use of safe physical courts, with organised physical distancing, will allow for a greater number of cases to be heard in the coming weeks. As safety is paramount, the Courts Service will ensure that all measures are in place before a significant increase in throughput can take place.
Hearings to test out the proposed new conditions have already been held in the Court of Appeal and the model tested there is being rolled out to the High Court and Circuit Court, as well as being used more extensively in the Court of Appeal.
The Chief Justice envisages that the new measures may well be in play until the second half of 2021. He said the measures, "will not allow a throughput of cases on the scale which operated prior to restrictions being put in place. It remains unrealistic to anticipate that all courtrooms in all courthouses will be able to operate at or near the level which existed prior to the crisis".
Nevertheless, within the bounds of serving the interests of justice while protecting the health and safety of all those involved in court hearings, the new measures should see a marked pickup in the number of cases being heard by the courts.
The Courts Service has established a team comprising front line staff from across the courts to agree measures to be applied in every courtroom as health restrictions are eased and the numbers of cases being heard increases. To date, some 47 cases have been heard in Virtual Courts. Most of these were in the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal and involved call over lists, case management hearings, criminal law hearings and civil law proceedings.
The Supreme Court
In the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice has announced a new practice direction requiring the issuing of a 'statement of case'. The first three cases deploying the new procedure are due for hearing in the next two weeks and a further six cases are to be heard in the weeks following, with an individual judge designated in each case to ensure that the appeal will be made ready for a remote hearing under the new procedure. It is hoped that all cases in respect of which leave to appeal was granted before the end of April of this year will have been heard by the end of July.
The Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal will increase the number of appeals to be heard remotely and, from 11 May, it is anticipated there will be three Virtual Courts sitting. In each of these courts, one or two appeals will be listed, depending on the expected duration of the hearing. A number of Lists to Fix Dates for hearings/directions will take place in the coming days and weeks.
The High Court
The President of the High Court has said that it will be possible from 18 May to expand both the type and number of cases to be heard, and that the High Court will sit throughout the Whit Vacation (which had been scheduled from 28 May to 10 June). Three courts will be available for remote virtual hearings daily and seven other courts in the Four Courts complex will be available for physical hearings daily. However, until further notice it will not be possible to hear cases that involve oral testimony. Judgments will continue to be delivered electronically and, since the commencement of Covid-19 restrictions, the Court has delivered 71 judgments electronically.
The Circuit Court
In the Circuit Court, hearings of civil law cases and motions that were adjourned since March will be given a hearing date by the Court Office as soon as possible. All trials and motions lists will be arranged on a staggered/time slot basis. Parties are requested to attend no earlier than 5 minutes before their allocated time to ensure social distancing is adhered to. No ex parte applications will be permitted. Urgent applications may be e-mailed to the appropriate Court Office and the office will ensure such matters are brought to the attention of the judge.
While mindful of the Chief Justice's comments that the throughput of cases can't be expected to be restored to pre-restriction levels and the new measures may remain in place until the second half of 2021, nevertheless this is a welcome initiative on the part of the Courts Service to facilitate access to the courts in the present difficult circumstances.
We at Fieldfisher will be making optimal use of the new measures to move our clients' cases along as speedily as possible.
Sign up to our email digest
Click to subscribe or manage your email preferences.