The Virtual Court

Photo: Kenya’s 1st virtual court session

Hertfordshire, along with Kent, Cheshire and London, have undertaken pilot studies of ‘ the virtual court‘. Designed for criminal cases, prisoners were video linked from prison for remand hearings.

Last week, the blogger video linked yet again from Leeds to the Royal Courts of Justice for a hearing in a family case.

The idea of the virtual court is not new. Nearly a decade and a half ago following the publication of a number of papers on the subject (including this one from Robin Widdison), the then Lord Chancellor Geoff Hoon mooted the idea of virtual court hearings. In 2001, Lord Justice Sir Henry Brooke had a go,  and in November 2011, Lord Neuberger came very close to the concept of the virtual court.

If you were to poll both professional court users and litigants, the blogger suspects that feedback would centre on the age-old issues: cost, delay, stress of attending court, waiting for the case to be called on, not getting on. They are the main reasons that the English legal system has been moving more and more towards alternative dispute resolution. Might ‘the virtual court’ also address or help with all or some of these issues?

Almost all interim hearings could so easily be removed from the court setting to a judge-supported administrative path. Yes, sometimes the parties need to see and hear from the judge in person – for example where settlement indications are sought (for example in financial dispute resolution meetings). But the sound of the voice and the whites of the eyes are equally audible and visible through video linking.

Just like working from the screen rather than the page, video hearings require new skills from both the lawyers and the judges, and to get them, a degree of new discipline. The blogger is unconvinced by lawyer’s assertions that “it takes the door of the court to broker a settlement”. All that is needed is a culture change. What better way to change the culture of settlement than for judges to prepare for a video hearing by reading the papers and setting an agenda, and the lawyers to prepare their clients properly before the video hearing?

The technology is there, and so is an increasing level of judicial experience of video hearings. The parties to a claim or case could simply attend their solicitor’s offices for a video conference with the judge. Any documentation to be shared could be scanned and emailed and in one simple measure the issues of overcrowded courts in staffed and expensive real estate, long delays and waiting time, court security, costly and lengthy travel arrangements and the unscheduled use of judge’s time, could be reduced.

Or is the legal profession too conservative, profit orientated, orally obsessed, or self-interested to make such developments work? Why has fifteen years of judicial driving towards the virtual court resulted in virtually nothing?


2 comments on “The Virtual Court

  1. Recently I tried to get a family hearing for directions heard by phone. It was exactly the sort of hearing which personal injury lawyers having being doing by phone for years. I failed. I suspect that two things conspired against me – the level of judge was circuit, not district and the other side was represented by a family law solicitor, and they have never done telephone hearings.

    Did you know that the telephone was invented over 140 years ago? And still lawyers struggle to use them.

  2. Yes, Jonathan, family lawyers are not the most experienced in phone and video conferencing and hearings. When the technology is available, why don’t judges use it?

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