The unprecedented outbreak of COVID-19 has changed the way litigation proceedings operate in a number of ways. The recent changes include the closure of the Supreme Court, hearings being conducted remotely via video link, increased electronic pre-trial preparation, and many more procedural matters being dealt with on paper. Courts will be transferring to remote hearings where possible, which will give rise to significant change in working practices for everyone involved.
Changes to the Civil Court system
On 23 March 2020, the UK government issued instructions for everyone to stay at home, save for very limited purposes, as supported by the Coronavirus Act 2020 and related regulations. The Coronavirus Act makes a specific provision implying that the civil court should continue with remote hearings, with the aid of technology which has been supported by guidance subsequently produced by the senior judiciary.
The new legislation will inevitably require a number of adjustments to be made to the civil courts as we know them, which will require co-operation and planning from the courts and the parties involved. Such planning will need to accommodate litigants and witnesses and ensure adequate video and audio quality so that all parties can be heard clearly and documents can be displayed visibly and quickly. While use of technology had already started to be applied and trialled across various courts in England & Wales, the current regime represents the most widespread use of technology in trials so far. Judges will have broad discretion as to how to proceed with cases and will make decisions on whether remote trials will be suitable on a case-by-case basis.
Blackfriars Ltd  EWHC 845 (Ch)
The fact that a case may comprise significant sums, a lengthy trial time and multiple witnesses will not necessarily prevent the court deciding to hold the trial remotely. In One Blackfriars Ltd  EWHC 845 (Ch), during a pre-trial review, the High Court rejected an application to adjourn the five-week hearing until June 2021. This trial is set to involve four live witnesses of fact and 13 expert witnesses. Placing importance on the overriding objective, John Kimbell QC rejected the submission that there was a real risk of unfairness in conducting a remote trial for this claim. It was held that the challenges and upsides of proceeding with a remote trial would apply to both sides equally. In this case, the court placed importance on the fact that there were no allegations of dishonesty or fraud and that the proceedings contained a large number of contemporaneous documents, where most of the relevant matters were likely to be set out.
The trial judge acknowledged the health and safety risks posed by conducting the trial in-person and pointed out that it was not “a case in which it can be said that it is essential to have the witness, the cross-examiner and the judge and the other participants in the same physical space”. It is clear that the court are trying to strike a balance between protecting the health and safety of those involved in litigation and ensuring the course of justice will ensue, with a demonstrable focus on avoiding undue delay.
Is it a just approach?
It has been acknowledged by the courts that they do not have the technological capabilities to offer a full remote service, and have indicated that HMCTS are working urgently to expand the technology available. In the meantime, courts will conduct hearings via Skype, telephone and other available video facilities. One of the issues with this is that many participants may not have the technological knowledge for hearings to progress smoothly, which could cause delays, especially in the early months. Parties are encouraged to be cooperative, especially in cases involving litigants in person, to try and ensure some fairness during the process and the courts have indicated that they would take a more relaxed approach than usual to compliance with certain aspects of the Civil Procedure Rules. For example, if court proceedings were not received due to self-isolation restrictions or office closures a request for relief from sanctions for late service would be expected to be looked upon sympathetically. It is important for the courts and both parties to be flexible in this regard and prioritise cooperation between the parties to ensure justice is not obstructed for the sake of a tactical advantage over one party.
Some would undoubtedly think, such as the parties involved in the Blackfriars Ltd  matter, that it would be more practical to postpone hearings until normality is resumed. Whilst this may seem sensible for some cases, the majority of cases are financially sensitive and adjournments may cause hardship for those involved. This may be particularly distressing whilst we are in a time of financial turmoil due to the current circumstances and not something that one party should be allowed to take advantage of.
Could this change the future of the courts?
The rules in the civil courts are flexible enough to allow the processes to be adapted quickly to ensure that proceedings fall in line with new coronavirus legislation. Some have seen the step towards a new ‘virtual’ court as a blueprint for the future of modern justice, for certain proceedings that can be easily managed without the need of physical attendance by the parties. Virtual hearings are far less costly for both parties and may be more time efficient, for example if both parties have to undergo preparation beforehand to ensure that all of those involved have in their possession the correct documents. While it remains unlikely that procedures will remain so drastically changed once the pandemic subsides, this will at least offer the most widespread trial of digital services the English court system has ever seen and will undoubtedly offer a great many lessons to learn in the making of future reforms.
Cases are financially sensitive and adjournments may cause financial difficulty for those involved. This may be particularly distressing whilst we are in a time of financial hardship due to the current circumstances and not something that one party should be allowed to take advantage of.
Could this change the future of the courts?
The rules in the civil courts are flexible enough to allow the processes to be adapted quickly to ensure that proceedings fall in line with new coronavirus legislation. With many arguing that traditional courts are far behind in terms of their upkeep of the modern world, the step towards a new ‘virtual’ court may be the future for certain proceedings that can be easily managed without the need of physical presence. Once these hearings are being progressed without a hitch, it may become more sustainable to work this way going forward. Virtual hearings are far less costly for both parties and may be more time efficient, for example if both parties have to undergo preparation beforehand to ensure that all of those involved have in their possession the correct documents. Of course, it is unlikely that procedures will change so drastically once normality returns, however it may be the change the legislature needs as a step in the right direction towards a more modern court system.
Eldwick Law have a team of expert solicitors who are able to assist you with any litigation during these unprecedented times.
Share this Post