An independent evaluation of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) video hearings has found that judges and users have been adapting well to the service – and that cases conducted remotely are feasible.
The report, by London School of Economics (LSE), refers to a small sample of cases studied in depth between March 2019 and March 2020 and was concluded before the Covid-19 outbreak.
Part of a £1bn programme to transform the court system through technology, video hearings allow participants to attend a hearing from their home, office or other suitable location. The idea of the system – even before the pandemic – was to provide a remote option where appropriate, when participants cannot or do not need to attend a physical courtroom.
The current roll-out of video hearings across civil, family and tax courts and tribunals has accelerated during the the coronavirus pandemic in order to avoid adjournments and keep cases moving through the system. According to HMCTS, the use of remote hearings during the Covid-19 outbreak will be evaluated, with the findings published once complete.
A number of recommendations on participant guidance and service functionality are outlined in the LSE report, and HMCTS pointed out that a number of these have already been implemented in response to user and judicial feedback.
“The report will add to the existing evidence base on video hearings and enable us to make further improvements,” said HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood.
“Audio and video technology has long played a part in the justice system and is a crucial tool in maintaining our justice system during the pandemic and beyond.”
The report describes the video hearing service journey, which includes a suitability assessment carried out by court or tribunal staff and the HMCTS video hearings team. This entails assessing whether parties have appropriate equipment, internet connection and private space to conduct the remote hearing.
Changes to the user journey were also described. According to the report, users no longer, as a rule, take part in a pre-hearing call with a video hearings officer, but an automated online self-test checks their equipment and internet speed.
Of the 23 video hearings examined in the LSE report, six were unable to proceed because of technology problems, including product outages and parties unable to log on to the platform. Three other hearings saw adjournments that would not have occurred had the hearings been in person.
Other technical issues were less significant and easier to remedy compared with a previous release that the LSE had also scrutinised. The report noted that judges adapted well to the video format and ensured parties could hear and see each other and that turn-taking conventions were adhered to. Judges were effective in managing the video hearings, and users respected the formality of the proceedings, it said.
From the users’ standpoint, a high level of satisfaction with the convenience of remote hearings and the level of support they received leading up to their video hearing was noticed by the researchers. According to the report, people largely complied with basic advice, displayed a professional demeanour and participated in the video hearing from a neutral setting.
Some users found it challenging to communicate over video and felt it might be difficult for people who are not familiar with, or do not have access to, suitable technology. However, those who experienced technical issues were able to resolve them.
Recommendations set out in the LSE report include several suggestions to improve guidance, such as providing advice to users on the equipment needed to take part in hearings remotely. It also made recommendations relating to platform functionality, such as incorporating into the platform signals to inform parties when their audio or video fails.
Advice in the report relating to improved products and associated services address concerns by judges, such as handling late or missing documents. To that end, the report recommended investigating ways to share late documents in a safe and secure way. It also recommended having a separate monitor to view parties in the video hearing, and that the equipment provided should be able to accommodate a single judge or a panel of judges and panel members.
In terms of future research that can benefit video hearings, the report advised a number of measures about tackling self-selection bias, which can be introduced with technology. The researchers noted that although users in the pilot had control over their home or office environments and used their own devices, the same would not apply to those taking part in police custody or in prison.
The researchers also recommended conducting further research on how vulnerable users experience video hearings.
In addition, the researchers recommended more investigation into how the incorporation of more coercive remote spaces, such as prisons or police custody, impacts the process and dynamics of a video hearing. They also suggested an evaluation of how video hearings impact decision-making and other justice outcomes.
However, according to the LSE report, the experience of participants in the pilot suggests that, at least for the types of hearing tested, video hearings can be a feasible alternative to physical hearings.