There is currently very little online support to prepare members of the public for appearing in a hearing from their own home or to guide them around these new virtual spaces. This poses a number of challenges to the validity of the process with many interest groups expressing concern about due process and the dangers of alienating court users from the process. There are particular concerns about the ability of the digitally impoverished, vulnerable and other lay users to participate effectively in this new way of doing justice. Effective access to, and use of, video technology is highly dependent on factors such as age, income, abilities, education and location. Virtual hearing may prove challenging for those who are vulnerable by reason of alcohol or drug use; neurodiversity; homelessness or experience of abuse. Problems also arise when court users are reliant on their own equipment and internet service to access the courtroom. Lay users accessing the courtroom from the incongruous location of their home also creates new dynamics and problems. Recent research on virtual hearings has shown that stress can be caused by long waiting periods, confusion about who is in the virtual hearing, the rapidity of entering and leaving the courtroom and the lack of support available after participants leave it. These various factors make it imperative to ensure the need for effective participation and the transformation of virtual legal space into a dignified civic place. Working in partnership with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service this project will draw on exiting research and extensive consultation with the public, court staff, interest groups, practitioners and policy makers to produce a central repository of good practice materials and a series of audio-visual guides for lay users for use in tribunals and family courts.
The research team will design and create a series of audio-visual guides and documentation that will enhance the efficiency, fairness and legitimacy of virtual trials. It will be guided by five key goals:
· Enhancing technical competence;
· Improving understanding of court processes;
· Supporting court users in navigating the alternative geographies and sense of time in virtual space;
· Engendering a sense of journeys to and from civic space; and
· Promoting dignity and gravitas in virtual court proceedings
Having discussed the project with colleagues in HMCTS it is now anticipated that the research will be geared towards the needs of lay users during the current pandemic as well as the post COVID-19 roll out of a new systems of video hearings.
This project will produce two key deliverables. The first is a repository of good practice materials for use in HMCTS and judicial training programmes on video-enabled proceedings. The second deliverable will involve the production of five audio-visual guides for lay participants that will be made available in advance of virtual proceedings and which will address the following:
· ‘How do I prepare for a virtual hearing?’: This will give generic advice on how best to prepare for an online hearing e.g., how to maximise internet connection, what to wear, what court users will need to hand, how to prepare your space, how to position yourself on screen and where to go to get independent advice.
· ‘What happens in virtual courts?’ This will take the form of guidance that is customised for particular types of hearings. It will explain the geography of the virtual courthouse (waiting, private consultation rooms and interpreter zones), what the court will look like on screen, variety of screens that may be used, how you will look to the court, who does what in the hearing, the likely order things will happen in, what is permissible in court, when and how to make your voice heard in an appropriate way during proceedings, what to do if things go wrong. It will also include ‘Leaving the courthouse’ which will indicate how hearings end, what is likely to happen next and alert those affected by proceedings to support services.
Participants will be alerted to these resources in communications from the court and on the day of their hearing. They will be available on YouTube for participants to watch in advance as many times as they choose to.
Advisory Group Membership
Chair: Sir Ernest Ryder
Former Senior President of Tribunals and Master of Pembroke College
Members of the Advisory Group:
· Naomi Creutzfeldt - Reader at Westminster Law School and Administrative Justice Council member
· Rosemary Hunter - Professor of Law and Socio-Legal Studies, University of Kent
· Liz Olney - Deputy Director User Change, Innovation and Investigations
· Lindsey Poole - Director of the Advice Services Alliance
· Rosemary Rand - Deputy Director for Future Hearings
· Meredith Rossner - Professor of Criminology and Sociology at the Australian National University
· Richard Susskind - Professor and specialist in legal technology
· Joe Tomlinson - Senior Lecturer in Public Law, University of York
· Kerry Woolford - HMCTS, Continuous Improvement Lead (COVID-19 recovery)