A new Video Hearings Service (VHS), upgrading the Cloud Video Platform (CVP) used during Covid, is to be rolled out across courts and tribunals, the Lord Chief Justice has revealed.
Lord Burnett also asked for patience while senior judges tried to develop a more consistent approach to when remote hearings should be used.
Speaking at last week’s Legal Wales conference, he said the VHS was “better” than the CVP and would provide “a higher quality and managed platform to enable some or all participants in legal proceedings to join by video from any suitable location”.
It should enhance access to justice for many, he added.
The VHS has “many additional features” compared to other remote video platforms, including virtual consultation rooms, checks and guidance to ascertain compatibility for use, the explanation of court rules for the user, and a monitored hearing network to check connectivity thus ensuring that no-one drops out unnoticed.
But he also acknowledged that remote attendance was not necessarily more efficient and quicker than in-person.
While it was “relatively easy” to identify types of hearing that should usually be dealt with remotely – “procedural hearings, arguments about law and so on” – it was difficult to draw up hard and fast rules, for example, for when a witness should be allowed to attend remotely.
“The interests of justice might be different when a judge is considering a vulnerable witness, or whether a litigant in person needs to be before the court.
“A real difficulty arises in respect of preliminary or procedural hearings which, from experience, all know might lead to resolution of issues or indeed of the whole case because of the physical interaction between parties and lawyers, often outside the court itself.”
Lord Burnett explained: “Judges continue to feel their way, but I and the heads of jurisdiction recognise that a broad consistency of approach is necessary subject, of course, to local conditions.
“That said, the components of the interests of justice are unlikely to be capable of being reduced to a list. Nor will it be possible to construct definitive lists of participants who should be allowed to attend remotely if they wish, or types of hearings.
“Please bear with us while we draw on both domestic and international experience.”
Lord Burnett also flagged up a scheduling and listing tool called List Assist, which will “introduce consistent digital tools and new processes. They will provide better support for judicial decision-making on scheduling and listing across all courts and tribunals”.
It will replace standalone diaries and in some places paper diaries, and will ultimately merge with case management systems “that will make it easier and quicker for listing officers to perform their role whilst reducing the need to re-enter information across multiple systems”.
Lord Burnett added: “The List Assist tool will support judges to exercise their listing function by improving the collection and management of a wide range of information about judicial availability, the availability of courts and the needs of court users. This in turn will provide more comprehensive and reliable data.
He also reiterated his call for proper resourcing of the courts, suggesting that the government gave “too little focus on the value that the rule of law, a properly functioning administration of justice and the courts contribute to the general prosperity of the nation, beyond the direct and substantial value of the legal sector”.
The judge explained: “Nobody, for example, would add up the direct economic contribution to the gross national product of the education sector but overlook the fact that without an educated population much else would fall away.
“Nobody would fail to appreciate that the value of a healthy population to the economy is enormous and not to be calculated by reference to the direct contribution of the health sector.
“And yet the same thinking appears absent or muted when it comes to the administration of justice.”