Throughout the lockdown most RTA practitioners saw widescale adjournment of hearings, as the Courts rightly sought to prioritise arguably more sensitive matters. As the Courts now begin to deal with the backlog and an increased number of cases are being listed, more attention is being drawn to the practicalities of the arrangements. Initial feedback has a standout theme for the Solicitors handling the straightforward cases – that consistency and simplicity is key.
This has worked effectively for Stage 3 hearings. They are consistently heard as telephone hearings, which for low fixed fee work eliminates travel or waiting times. The fact that they are all the same format clearly helps in the listing of the cases, minimises the necessity of liaising between parties and has helped advocates adapt quickly. Feedback would suggest that more hearings can be completed in this format and that helps the Court in efficiently dealing with the volumes they face.
There are clearly more challenges with cases allocated to the small claims or fast track where oral evidence from parties or witnesses is required. Rather than just the advocacy and submission-based environment of Stage 3 hearings, video links are needed, facial expressions examined, and credibility assessed.
The technology is absolutely fine (assuming your client can access it – another story entirely), but the preparation has caused some confusion in the initial stages. Listing Orders differ from Court to Court – some simple and some not so, including requests for witness statements as to the necessity and arrangements for remote hearings.
These are all straightforward things to deal with in isolation, but any decent Solicitor will probably tell you they like to plan and are usually managing a busy case load. “Got a hearing coming up? Right I need to do x, y and z on my list” is at risk of becoming “got a hearing coming up? Which Court? What format? How do they like the bundle? Are we using CVP or skype for business? Do we need to do a witness statement? An application?”. It is not hard to see the risk of mistakes being made and valuable Court sitting time being wasted as a result.
Yes the topic of remote hearings can lead to a great deal of philosophical thought as to access to justice, but the point here is that predictability and consistency make the busy and difficult lives of Solicitors, Judges and importantly Court staff that little bit easier to manage in practice.
The Commons Justice Committee is currently running a consultation and call for evidence until 12th October on these and other issues. I would encourage firms to share their practical experiences with them, to give the best possible chance of a positive and constructive outcome for all those who work in the sector.
Adam Thorpe, author of “Remote hearings – the story so far”, is a Solicitor and Manager of the Litigation Team at Winn Solicitors in Byker. He is also MASS Regional Co-ordinator for the North East.
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