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Remote hearings research highlights wellbeing concerns for judiciary, legal representatives and HMCTS staff

More than half of judicial respondents (58%) and legal representatives (54%) felt that remote hearings impacted on their health and wellbeing, an HM Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) survey has found.

The HMCTS research, entitled Evaluation of remote hearings during the COVID 19 pandemic, surveyed 8,328 stakeholders during the first stage of the pandemic (May to October 2020). Respondents included public users (4,808), judiciary members (1,140), legal representatives (2,022) and HMCTS staff (358).

In relation to judicial respondents, the report said: “Increased fatigue was the most commonly reported issue followed by increased stress, increased workload and fewer breaks.”

For legal representatives,"reduction in travel and waiting times was significant for many but some said that they found remote hearings more tiring, missed the interaction in court and found work/home boundaries more challenging.”

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Two in five HMCTS staff (43%) also reported that remote hearings impacted on their health and wellbeing. They were most likely to cite increased workload and stress, closely followed by fewer breaks and fatigue as the main challenges.

The research meanwhile found that two thirds of public users (67%) felt remote hearings were an acceptable alternative during the pandemic, and over half (56%) felt they would be acceptable afterwards. “Those who had experienced a remote hearing were particularly open to the idea of them continuing, and indeed would mostly prefer to repeat a remote hearing rather than attend in-person.”

Professionals meanwhile felt remote hearings had played an important role in reducing the potential backlog but there was a much wider range of views about the use of remote hearings in a post-pandemic environment. “The type of hearing, severity of the case, support needs of the parties and length of the hearing were all factors that could influence the suitability of the use of remote hearings,” the survey said.

A small number of participants felt that remote hearings were totally unacceptable in a post-pandemic context. The survey found 23% of judicial respondents, 13% of public users, 9% of legal representative respondents and 13% of HMCTS staff 'strongly disagreed' that remote hearings were a suitable alternative post-pandemic.

The survey found that judges sitting in tribunals were more likely to strongly agree that remote hearings were an acceptable alternative to in-person hearings beyond the pandemic (33% compared to 13-18% in other jurisdictions).

In addition, legal representatives working in crime were more likely to strongly agree that remote hearings were an acceptable alternative to in-person hearings beyond the pandemic (73% compared to 29%-58% in other jurisdictions). However, those working in tribunals had stronger preferences to be in court with their client (36% compared to 12%-20% in other jurisdictions).

Many stakeholders felt that remote hearings should continue for procedural and case management type hearings, the HMCTS research reported. This included directions hearings, case management hearings, short application hearings (up to 2 hours), straightforward claims, reviews, and injunctions.

Many respondents felt that other, more serious types of hearing were less suited to a remote environment, however. These included longer hearings, hearings involving decisions to incarcerate a person or remove a child from a parent, hearings involving first-hand evidence and cross-examinations, and any hearing directly involving children.

Other findings from the report included:

  • Those attending remotely and in-person who were represented were equally likely to feel they had sufficient time with their legal representative before the hearing (74% and 72%, respectively). However, some legal representatives and support professionals said they found it takes more time and is more challenging to build rapport with clients remotely.
  • One in five remote hearing public users experienced issues with technology. Respondents reported that the main issues were inconsistent audio quality and people being disconnected. "These issues made some hearings take longer and made it more difficult for court users to contribute and follow what was happening. Despite these issues, there were few court adjournments due to technology issues reported across all groups."
  • Public users and observers had better experiences when they understood what to expect from the judge's introduction. “Formal introductions, with ground rules and housekeeping for the hearing, helped users feel reassured and more able to contribute at the right time.”
  • Of public users represented by a legal representative, those attending in-person hearings were more likely than those attending remotely to report that it was easy to communicate with their legal representative in the hearing (57% compared with 46%). Vulnerable individuals who accessed their hearings remotely were particularly less likely to have found it easy to communicate with their lawyer (41% disagreed that was easy compared with 29% of those not classed as vulnerable).
  • Legal representatives and support professionals commented that there was often a lack of communication about delays and cancellations of remote hearings. A third of legal representatives (36%) reported being dissatisfied and commented that lack of information about delays could be a major factor contributing towards a stressful experience for their clients.
  • Public users that attended remote hearings were more likely to be satisfied with the overall experience than in-person users (63% compared to 56%). In these cases, drivers for satisfaction were strong judge moderation, comfort and security of joining from home, less travel time and costs, time off work and childcare needed.
  • For remote hearings, all professionals preferred fully remote hearings and CVP was the most popular platform.
  • Around half of judges thought remote hearings were effective at creating a comparable environment to in-person hearings (51%), but four in ten thought they were ineffective in doing so (37%). Legal representatives and HMCTS staff were more likely to consider that remote hearings effectively created a comparable environment (69% and 62%, respectively).

Adam Carey 

Sponsored Editorial

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