Last month a research report on the “Evaluation of remote hearings during the COVID 19 pandemic” was published by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The report covers both video and audio hearings and is based on surveys and interviews of public users, legal representatives, the judiciary and HMCTS staff. You can read our first post on the research here.
In this second post on the research, we will focus on some of the findings in relation to public users, which is based on 4,808 surveys (3,334 from remote hearings and 1,474 from in-person hearings) and 78 qualitative interviews (from remote attendance only). The public user sample was from court or tribunal users who had attended hearings during the first few months of the pandemic, between May and October 2020.
Overall, 60% of public users surveyed attended their hearing remotely and 40% attended in person. However, there were significant differences between types of attendance according to the jurisdiction, so for example, for Social Security and Child Support Tribunals, the proportions were 96% remote attendance and 4% in person, whereas in Magistrates’ Courts, 9% attended remotely and 91% attended in person. 68% of remote users accessed the hearing via audio, whilst 32% accessed via video.
Some findings highlighted in the report
Location of users
Nearly 80% of public users attended remote hearings from their own homes, 3% attended from someone else’s home and 10% attended from their workplace. When attending remotely, represented public users were rarely in the same place as their legal representative – only 2% attended from their lawyer’s offices. This led to some difficulties in communicating during the hearing – whilst most lawyers had a second device to aid communication during the hearing, public users were less likely to have access to another device.
There were a few occasions where hearings had to be adjourned because a public user had joined from an unsuitable location – such as a park, a street, on a plane and even driving on the motorway.
Interviews with public users showed that attending from home made them feel less anxious, safer and more comfortable.
Use of devices
61% of public users attended remotely using a mobile phone, 21% using a laptop and 10% landline phone. The use of a second device was highlighted as beneficial to enable private communication with other parties during the hearing. On some occasions, for example, interpreters would set up a separate call with the person they were interpreting for, in order to simultaneously interpret during the hearing.
Prior to the hearing public users had limited expectations of how the remote hearing would look and feel. They were also concerned about how the quality of their connection would impact upon their involvement in, and understanding of, the proceedings.
Pre-hearing information and guidance
The vast majority of public users who received pre-hearing guidance on how to participate in the hearing found it easy to follow. Those participants that did receive pre-hearing guidance were less likely to experience technical issues or require technical support than those that did not receive the guidance. Just over half of public users stated that they weren’t given the chance to test their connection before the hearing.
Technical experience of remote hearings
Around one fifth of public users experienced technical issues during the remote hearing – inconsistent audio quality and being disconnected were the most common problems. That said, only 2% of public users reported their hearing had to be adjourned due to technical problems.
Most public users reported being able to access the platform for their remote hearing with ease. Those that did encounter difficulties accessing the platform found they were quickly resolved through support from court staff or legal representatives. Although parties are advised to join 30 minutes before the hearing to test out their equipment and browser, most join closer to the start time, which can leave insufficient time to resolve any issues.
Introductions by the judge or clerk at the beginning of remote hearings had a bearing on the ability of public users to follow and understand proceedings, with those that received a detailed introduction more likely to be reassured about the process and more confident in how to contribute.
Whilst there are some downsides to remote attendance, on the whole, public users that attended remote hearings early in the pandemic have positive views about the medium through which they attended. Not only is it more convenient for attendees, but they also feel less anxious about attending a hearing from home.
The main concerns, that public users had regarding remote hearings, centred around having technical difficulties during the hearing. Public users should follow the pre-hearing guidance, test their equipment ahead of the hearing and join the hearing early – doing so will help to reduce the number of occasions where technical issues arise. Even if only one party in a remote hearing experiences technical difficulties, it has a significant impact on the ability to progress the hearing, and it is more difficult for court users to contribute and to understand what is happening in the hearing and the outcome of it.
Interestingly, the research found that remote and in-person users had the same views on effectiveness and fairness of their hearings. Many public users did not feel that the remote format had impacted on the fairness and impartiality of proceedings. This is because users linked fairness and impartiality to the progression of the case and the opportunity to have their say, rather than any factors relating to the hearing being held remotely.
Hybrid hearings (where some users attend remotely and others attend in person) and fully remote hearings are here to stay. They will play a valuable role in ensuring the wheels of justice keep turning well beyond the pandemic. In much the same way as many of us have adapted to new ways of working and communicating during the pandemic, court and tribunal users are embracing remote attendance as part of “the new normal”.
By Saqib Rauf, Veritas Witness Training
24th January 2022
The full report on the “Evaluation of remote hearings during the COVID 19 pandemic” can be read here.