The Covid-19 restrictions on the nature of hearings has caused legal representatives to broaden their skill set. As a Barrister used to working in the traditional manner from Chambers and with very little remote attendance this has significantly changed my working practices.
So far this has meant finding a safe, confidential space to work on remote hearings at home, whilst ensuring my own children were cared for. It soon became apparent also that flicking through an e-bundle whilst also trying to focus on a video hearing was not practical and as such sourcing an additional screen was necessary and life changing.
After adapting to this way of working, the situation for those undertaking Care work has recently developed further as the question of attending ‘Hybrid Hearings’ has gained momentum. This became a reality for me three weeks ago when I attended a Hybrid Final Hearing hosted in a socially distanced room in Chambers.
Whilst I am fortunate that I and my family are neither vulnerable nor shielding, the Covid-19 restrictions were still very much in place when the request came. The implications of assisting felt greater than they might be in other circumstances.
On a personal level this was the first time I had needed to consider the risk to my family when doing my job. But, at a professional level, if we could facilitate this hearing, then the client would be able to actively participate and hopefully find resolution in such an important issue in their own family life. The issue of access to justice has rightly been a running theme since lockdown and in this instance, we would be able to ensure the client was fully involved and not disadvantaged.
At Queen Square Chambers we are fortunate to have a socially distanced ground floor conference room set up for these hearings. The Clerks and Admin team had really thought through how we could make this space safe for all, reassuring me and client that all practicalities were thought of and we could focus solely on the hearing. Hand Gels, wipes, masks, and gloves were all available and the client was asked to agree to a set of procedures to ensure any risk was minimised.
The room has separate street access for the client’s sole use, is light and airy and is large enough that we could sit at opposite ends of a two-metre table. Chambers provided the client with a separate computer and I was able to work from my own screens/ laptop.
The client also had their own toilet facilities and had been asked to socially distance in advance.
We were both joined to the hearing via video conferencing – the Judge being both in court and working from home on different days and other parties also working remotely.
This arrangement worked well and was in use for the majority of the hearing. I found it best to use only the audio on my computer, asking the client to mute theirs, so that there was not an echo and so that I could control the transmissions.
The benefit of working from the same room as client meant that I could always see and hear them, and we could easily share information. This enabled swifter instructions and consultation and, although we still proceeded at a slower rate than if we were all in court, it made the hearing flow better with less breaks. Though, as with many of the remote hearings I have now participated in, we still sat for a shorter day as the increased screen time takes its toll.
The proximity of the client with no others present did have its challenges though. If they wanted to speak whilst the hearing was in progress, there was a somewhat boundaryless feel that required careful managing, however, the Judge’s understanding – meant I could mute the noise from our end if client was talking to me and also switch off my camera so that we did not distract others when this happened. We were fortunate with a Judge who did not take issue with this happening.
On the day that my client gave evidence we both attended court and although there were IT difficulties we managed to work with it, again not least because of the Judge’s willingness to work flexibly which kept the case on track.
This element worked well for the client in that they were able to present herself clearly to the Judge – yet since the questioning came via video link I felt the negative stress-related impact on them of being questioned was reduced. This has been my feeling of all questioning via video however in this period – that it can often does not replicate the atmosphere of being in court and the seriousness/intensity of the situation is not present.
As the case progressed, the client had become increasingly anxious, and wanted to be in familiar circumstances and as such the final two days we conducted from our own homes. We maintained e-mail contact through the hearing and telephone contact in between. The flexible approach taken by the courts since lockdown enabled this to happen and lessened the toll on the client.
Over the course of the 7 day trial spread over 2 weeks we necessarily utilised the full range of hearing options available – attending remotely but with Client present, attending in person to give evidence at court and finally entirely remotely separate from client for submissions and Judgement.
The logistics and running of the hearing went well. It required a collaborative approach from the Advocates and Judge – and to some extent the client. It showed that it could be done and was workable to ensure cases were heard. It may not suit for all hearings but crucially if clients do not have the facilities to join and participate in hearings from home, arrangements must be made in this period to ensure access to justice.
I would however have reservations about a Hybrid Hearing proceeding with a client that struggled to manage their emotional state to a significant extent or that was prone to anger/ outbursts as one would feel fairly exposed and diverted trying to manage that behaviour as well as conduct the hearing. It may well even lead to professional conflict.
Fresh from this experience, in a hearing I have on the horizon, I have sought support in managing the client which may lead to the Judge ordering provision for me to be attended. Clearly courts, Advocates and Judges need to take a considered approach to ensure each case is heard appropriately.
I hope that provides some info for any with a Hybrid Hearing approaching – I would be happy to answer any questions or concerns anyone has regarding the above or any aspect of the logistics of the hearing. Please contact my Clerks Jess and Tom at Family@qsc.law if you have any queries.