County court to test video hearings in year-long pilot

Online justice: Internet-enabled video hearings pilot set to launch

A year-long pilot to hear applications to set aside county court default judgments by an internet-enabled video link will begin at the end of this month.

It is the latest development in the ongoing court modernisation programme.

The pilot will apply to applications heard at the Manchester or Birmingham Civil Justice Centres under changes introduced in the 101st update to the Civil Procedure Rules as Practice Direction 51V.

The parties or their legal representatives will attend the hearing of the application from suitable IT equipment and will see and hear, and will be seen and heard by, each other and the judge.

Hearings will be held in public by members of the public attending the court in person, where they will watch the judge and the parties or lawyers on a screen set up in the court room.

Earlier this year, there was a small-scale pilot of video hearings in the First-tier Tribunal (Tax Chamber).

It had various problems, but as far as it went, an evaluation reported high levels of user satisfaction with the trial, mainly due to the convenience of not having to travel to a physical hearing.

There are five conditions to be satisfied before a video hearing will be held under the new pilot. First, each party has to consent to it.

Second, at least 14 days before the hearing date, each party or legal representative has to complete online a pre-video hearing suitability questionnaire.

Third, a court officer has to consider these questionnaires and be satisfied that each side is able, and has access to the IT equipment required, to participate in a video hearing.

Fourth, a judge has to consider both the application and the questionnaires, and decide that the application may proceed by way of a video hearing.

Finally, at least seven days before the hearing date, the court has to set up a video hearing user account for each sides, and test the IT equipment they intend to use.

Meanwhile, this Thursday will see the first live-streaming of a Court of Appeal (Civil Division) hearing as part of a pilot to increase public access to the work of the court.

The case being shown involved a dispute between West Ham United and E20, which manages the former Olympic stadium where the football club plays, over the seating capacity that should be made available for home fixtures.

The live streaming will be available through the judiciary website here.

Sir Terence Etherton, the Master of the Rolls, said: “This is an exciting way of opening up our courts to help the public understand and see for themselves the way that courts work, and how appeals are heard. The first case is a high-profile one with a great deal of public interest, which is why it has been selected for the public pilot.

“The intention is to have up to three appeal hearings being live-streamed in the near future, assuming that all works well with the public pilot. We hope that as well as opening up the court’s work to a mass audience, the broadcasts will increase public confidence in the system.”

Cases are selected for live-stream by the court itself. The image broadcast will be of a split screen, with simultaneous broadcast of the judicial bench and the front rows of counsel in the case.

The proceedings are subject to a short delay, as per the Supreme Court’s system, which allows for a case to be halted to ensure that, for example, an inadvertent breach of a reporting restriction would not be broadcast.

The pilot will be subject to an evaluation before live-streaming is extended and allowed for family cases too.

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