The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted significantly on the day-to-day running of the Court system. More or less immediately after lockdown, many hearings were quickly adjourned in the hope, if not the expectation, that things would soon return to normal.
Court rooms were closed and hearings conducted remotely by telephone or on video platforms.
The system was already under pressure and creaking before the crisis began. There were delays in processing applications and listing hearings. Needless to say, those problems have been exacerbated.
It is clear that social distancing will remain in place for many months yet to come and it is unlikely that anything approaching a return to a normal working, court environment will be achieved before the end of 2020 or even spring of 2021.
The Court, however, still has to deal with a large number of applications and will have to provide for a just and timely determination of all cases but with radically reduced resources.
Court rooms and Court buildings are beginning to slowly re-open but the reality is that remote hearings, as opposed to attended hearings, will continue to be routinely undertaken.
Hearings by telephone, for the most part, are better suited to short case management or review hearings where the issues for consideration by the court, generally, are more straightforward.
It is possible that face-to-face, or attended hearings may take place where Court facilities permit the parties, their legal representatives and witnesses to safely attend whilst observing social distancing guidelines. These will be restricted, in the main, to final, contested hearings. The reality is that, for the time being, they will be more the exception than the rule due not just to limited resources but, additionally, to adherence to public health guidelines.
Hybrid meetings may be considered where some but not all the participants attend the Court in person but others participate in the hearing remotely by video link.
These are issues which will have to be considered in detail by the Judge when managing the case and deciding how best to list it for hearing.
In terms of video platforms, neither the Judges nor HMTCS currently support Zoom and the preferred platforms are Cloud Video Platform (CVP) or Skype. CVP, seemingly, has better functionality than Skype
The Court will make more use in the future of Deputy District Judges, Recorders and Deputy High Court Judges, who normally sit only part time, to ease the pressures on the system and avoid delay wherever possible.
The Court will also encourage the parties to actively consider alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to include mediation, conciliation and arbitration.
Cases will have to be managed by the Court in a clear, focused and robust manner. Issues in dispute will have to be better determined. Time afforded to cases, by definition, will be reduced and only the key issues addressed whilst at all times ensuring that cases are dealt with justly pursuant to the overriding objective.
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