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Plans unveiled for piloting of remote court hearings during COVID-19 pandemic

01/04/2020

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Ireland

On 30 March 2020, the Chief Justice and the Presidents of each of the Courts (Court of Appeal, High Court, Circuit Court and District Court) held a remote meeting to review current measures to ensure the continuance of essential elements of the administration of justice during the COVID-19 pandemic but also to plan for the future.
 
A welcome and innovative development from this meeting is the announcement of the planned piloting of remote Court hearings. In respect of this announcement, some important considerations have been set out below:
 
  • A considerable amount of work by the Courts Service has been carried out in terms of putting in place the ICT infrastructure necessary to facilitate remote court hearings which must comply with the constitutional obligation that justice be administered in public.  This will mean that Judges and legal counsel will not have to be in a physical courtroom in order for legal argument to be heard. For journalists, this may mean using a video link in an empty courtroom, where they would watch a screen showing the judge and the others participating in the court hearing. This would fulfil the constitutional obligation that justice be administered in public as well as the need to curtail the numbers needing to be in the same room.
 
  • Remote hearings will be concentrated in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. An initial systems trial will be held in the immediate future and, if successful, testing will continue to ensure that the system works satisfactorily prior to it being rolled out to conduct actual hearings. 
 
  • It is hoped that the Courts will be able to pilot remote hearings in early course, 'where they are suitable and where they can be conducted in a manner which is fair and where the parties and their representatives can comply with all Government guidance and direction for the time being in force'.  It is further hoped that it will be possible for the pilot facility to be in place close to the beginning of the new legal term on 20th April 2020.
 
  • Further statements by the Judiciary will be issued to the public and practitioners on these developments and on other measures designed to allow the maximum number of cases to progress and be ultimately decided, subject only to that being capable of being done safely.  Each President will, in due course, issue further guidance on how such measures will apply in the relevant court.
 
Hearings of Statutory Bodies
 
Outside of the Courts system, statutory bodies such as the Residential Tenancies Board currently utilise video link facilities for hearing disputes between landlords and tenants. Many Irish regulators also utilise Skype / video link facilities for the provision of witness evidence, albeit that full hearings have rarely, if at all, been heard in this way to date. For example, the Medical Council[1], the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland[2], the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland[3] and CORU[4] allow for 'evidence of witnesses to be given by means of live video link, a video recording, sound recording or any other mode of transmission'.
 
In relation to Mental Health Tribunals, pursuant to the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020, a number of measures have been introduced to assist with the safe conduct of hearings. For example, the emergency legislation (once enacted) will allow for one member, paper-based Tribunals -minimizing personal interaction. It also provides for a second consultant psychiatrist to assess the patient remotely.
 
It will be interesting to see what steps are taken by regulators in this jurisdiction in relation to the conduct of hearings to ensure that inquiries can continue to be heard while compling with social distancing guidelines.
 
UK – Remote Hearings
 
The English High Court recently held their first ever court case online via the video conferencing service 'Zoom', with the case being streamed live on YouTube. Furthermore, the UK recently introduced the Corona Virus Act 2020 which, among many other things, facilitates the live broadcasting of hearings online.  As of last week, the UK Supreme Court has also switched to video conferencing to hear cases and deliver judgements. Guidance in relation to the UK's procedures regarding telephone and video hearings during coronavirus outbreak can be accessed here
 
In relation to regulatory hearings, the UK's General Optical Council (GOC) UK has stated, where possible, the GOC will hold remote virtual hearings either by teleconference, video-link or on the papers. Rule 25(1) of The General Optical Council (Fitness to Practise) Rules Order of Council 2013 requires that substantive hearings must be held in public. To fulfil this, the GOC will provide a dial-in link to their virtual public hearings in order that the public can attend.
 
Conclusion
 
These new moves in both Ireland and the United Kingdom represent a seismic new development for courts and tribunal systems and the way in which they are run. This space will be watched with interest by both the public and practitioners as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
 
The statement issued by the Chief Justice and the Presidents of each of the Courts can be accessed here.

Written by Eimear Burke, Hannah Unger & Ellie Kavanagh
 
[1] S.I. No. 593/2009
[2] S.I. No. 358/2014
[3] S.I. No. 274/2017
[4] S.I. No. 371/2016

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