Video hearings will not supplant face-to-face hearings in the majority of cases before the courts, even after their use is expanded, the deputy director of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has predicted.
Kevin Sadler also said that while plans for video hearings have not affected recent decisions on the size of the court’s physical estate, their use may do in the future.
Writing on the HMCTS blog, Mr Sadler, who is also director of courts and tribunals development, emphasised that judicial discretion was “at the heart of making fully video hearings work” – it would always be for the judge to decide whether to use the option or not, and to ensure the interests of justice were served, he said.
This made predictions for potential use difficult but he said HMCTS has made “some broad estimates” about the potential future use of both video-enabled hearings – where one or more participants join via video – and fully video hearings where all participants do.
He stressed that these were for planning only and included preliminary and progress hearings, but said he was making them public to counter concerns that the majority of hearings might be moved to video.
“Though we think video will continue to play an important role, our expectation is that, across the system, the vast majority of hearings will continue to take place face to face,” Mr Sadler said.
Video hearings are little used in the civil and family courts, but he said there were “many circumstances where, once we can provide for it, this might be useful”.
HMCTS’s working estimate is that around a fifth of civil hearings, and less than a tenth of family cases, might in future make some use of video – most of these involving one or two people joining, and far fewer being fully-video.
“We think the figure for tribunals will be significantly smaller but we do expect many hearings to be dealt with using continuous online resolution,” he added.
Mr Sadler observed that many criminal hearings already have witnesses or defendants appearing by video-link.
“Our future estimates for these jurisdictions therefore focus only on fully-video hearings. We expect less than a tenth of magistrates’ court hearings will be fully-video in future, and less than 1% of Crown Court hearings.”
He stressed that these estimates “have played no role in any decision to close a court”.
“All consultations about court closures to date… have been based on current court practices and issues and do not make assumptions about future reforms such as the possible increase in use of video hearings.
“We do anticipate, however, that the use of fully video hearings may have an impact on our estate in the future.”
Video hearings have first been tested in lawyer-only preliminary hearings in the immigration and asylum tribunal, and since March fully video hearings have been piloted in the tax tribunal. This will be independently evaluated.
Mr Sadler said the plans for this year included more work on options for use of fully video hearings in bail and remand, “as well as further developing the technology we have used for the tax tribunal pilot, so that it can be made available in other jurisdictions”.
In relation to open justice, Mr Sadler said: “We are exploring locating terminals in court buildings to provide the public and media with access to view fully video hearings – and we want to work with representatives of the media industry to ensure these changes work effectively for reporting of proceedings too.”