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Dawn of the ‘Virtual Courtroom’

This week the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal heard cases with judges, legal practitioners and parties appearing by remote video conferencing.

It is expected that in the coming weeks virtual court hearings will be opened out to members of the media, with reporters given access to cases remotely via secure and password protected links. This would ensure justice will continue to be administered in public as required by law.

Until now the concept of a fully functioning ‘virtual courtroom’ had only been referenced in future plans announced by the Court Service in its ten year strategy document published in January 2020. However, necessity is the mother of all inventions.  The ten year plan has been expedited to meet the challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Modernisation of current processes

A benefit of the process is that the technology used is widely adaptable for those who need to be involved in cases. A virtual meeting room (VMR) is set up for the purpose of each court sitting by the Court Service. The video streaming app used is inter-operable with other widely available video streaming services, including Skype, Zoom, Cisco, Microsoft Teams, without the requirement that all parties use the same video streaming app when connecting.

Embracing the change

These changes have been welcomed by legal practitioners where in recent weeks the civil courts have shut down for the most part.

Each Court President will issue guidelines on how and when the technology for remote hearings will be used in their respective courts. The President of the High Court has said pilot trials are hoped to begin by Monday April 27th for suitable cases.

In terms of civil actions, remote hearings would minimise the necessity for attendance at physical hearings, especially for busy expert witnesses. This would result in reduced instances of adjournments due to the unavailability of witnesses and in turn allow a reduction in case listings. However the Courts will likely adopt a gradual approach to the introduction of this technology, as it has not yet had the benefit of extensive user testing.

One practical issue would be communication between counsel and their instructing solicitors during a hearing.  Of course, short pauses in the hearing to allow for such communication to take place.

Outlook for the future

Video link technology has been used for some time by the Irish Courts to allow certain parties to have remote access to a court hearing. This is now being rolled out to all parties in an effort to get the legal system back up and running.

HOMS Assist has been at the forefront of the Virtual Courtroom evolution. This week, Sean Fitzgerald, Solicitor specialising in personal injury with a particular emphasis on Industrial Accidents and Diseases completed the hearing of a civil action by way of  video conferencing which included barristers and witnesses, all while working remotely from home.

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