The Ministry of Justice said there will be further evaluations of the use of remote hearings to help inform the longer-term use of audio and video technologies.
The commitment was set out in the government’s response to the Justice Committee’s July 2020 report and recommendation on covid-19 and the impact on courts.
An intial evaluation is to explore issues including barriers for users such as those with disabilities or mental health issues.
The findings are expected to be made available in early 2021.
In its report, the Justice Committee raised various concerns ranging from the urgent need to identify the effects of increased use of digital technology for the delivery of justice and the parties’ perception of fairness of the proceedings; to general concerns that the pandemic should not be an excuse for the government introducing permanent changes without prior consultation and evaluation.
It also highlighted the danger that the role of the principle of open justice will be “eroded by accident” during the pandemic and called for full public access to hearings to be restored when possible.
However, in its response government said some changes implemented this year “will be time-limited and will stop with the end of the pandemic” – but said the use of remote hearings during the pandemic will be further evaluated.
“However”, it added, “it will be extremely difficult to isolate the sole impact of audio and video technology from the wider context, as so many changes have swiftly occurred due to the pandemic.”
When the pandemic is over, it said another evaluation will be needed .
The government also reiterated the MoJ’s “long- term intention remains a sustainable fixed fee scheme”, but said further evidence needs to be gathered to inform any permanent changes.
It also pointed out that more than 90% of court buildings have reopened, along with a further 10 Nightingale courts; and jury trials have resumed at 68 Crown Courts.
But David Greene, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said case backlogs are “significant across both the civil and criminal justice systems”.
“To help clear the backlogs”, he added, “we encourage the government to open additional Nightingale courts.
“Investing in legal aid for early advice and legal representation would help to nip problems in the bud, thus avoiding some cases going to court at all, and ensuring judicial time is used as efficiently as possible in cases which do go to court.”
Greene commented that remote hearings have been successful in some areas, but said that “for some cases – particularly those involving vulnerable parties – people should still be physically present for justice to be delivered”.
He welcomed the government’s commitment to undertake further evaluation of remote hearings before making them permanent in any area of law.
“We ask they consult the profession and share emerging findings both during and after the pandemic to ensure there are no adverse impacts on access to justice”, he added.