A report published on 5 June
outlines the results of a review into the impact of the measures taken to combat COVID-19 on the civil justice system.
Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research at The Legal Education Foundation, led the research at the request of the Civil Justice Council. The data gathered included 1,077 responses to an online survey of court users who had participated in remote hearings between 19 March and 15 May 2020. Respondents reported technical difficulties in 44.7 per cent of hearings, but 71.5 per cent of respondents reported that their experience of the hearing was either positive or very positive.
In cases in which the outcome ‘is likely to be less contested’ (para 1.19, page 9), such as costs hearings, the report suggests that there is ‘tentative support’ for conducting such hearings remotely. Commercial firms were particularly supportive of the increased use of virtual hearings in commercial litigation (para 1.28, page 11). Some housing lawyers also voiced support for the use of remote hearings for case management hearings in possession cases where both sides are represented, and homelessness appeals on a point of law (para 8.15, page 79).
The majority of survey participants were lawyers (871); only 11 completed responses to the online survey were from lay users and litigants in person (LiPs) (paras 1.13 and 1.21, pages 7 and 9). The report stresses the need for more data collection from non-professional court users. In light of this, the authors warn that their ‘findings should not be generalised to the wider population of court users’ (para 1.8, page 6).
According to many respondents, one of the major difficulties in trying to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the civil justice system is that measures, such as the suspension of housing possession proceedings, have ‘artificially suppressed’ the number of cases involving LiPs and vulnerable people (para 1.9, page 7). They are concerned about the likely effect of COVID-19 on the economy and the knock-on impact that this could have on increasing legal need.
The report includes many recommendations from respondents to tackle the backlog of cases caused by the reduction in hearings due to the COVID-19 crisis and other suggestions to improve the system, for example, investing in better infrastructure to support e-bundles and the sharing of documents (page 78). Particularly in housing possession cases, though, many respondents emphasised that remote hearings are inappropriate in most cases due to problems such as the difficulties that vulnerable clients face in accessing technology (para 8.16, page 79).
Carol Storer, LAG’s interim director, said: ‘The authors of this report have done a fantastic job in gathering and analysing feedback from court users in such a short time. The report includes many helpful recommendations, but as it readily acknowledges, more data is needed on the experience of vulnerable court users before making decisions, especially on the greater use of remote hearings in housing and other areas of law which impact on them.’