CIVIL JUSTICE COUNCIL REPORT ON THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON CIVIL COURT USERS

It is not possible to have anything but admiration for the way in which the Civil Justice Council have produced their report on the impact of COVID-19 on civil court users.   The report is available here.  It carried out what is described as a “Rapid Review”.  It makes specific recommendations for change and considers, with considerable empathy, the problems of all concerned in the civil process and with remote hearings in particular.   Here I highlight four particular parts.

ACCESS TO LEGAL ADVICE

“Respondents reported that measures mandated by the pandemic had reduced the availability and accessibility of legal advice, with the impact of reductions in advice disproportionately affecting those on low incomes. A number of respondents raised concerns that the economic climate created by the pandemic had caused legal need to rise, with implications for pressure on the civil justice system in the short to medium term. Even if these concerns fail to materialise, respondents reported that the backlog generated by the current stay in possession proceedings would pose an enormous challenge for the civil justice system. The urgency of establishing a working group to devise solutions for managing this backlog representing all stakeholders involved and including lawyers with experience of working at the housing court duty scheme, was repeatedly emphasised.”

ADJOURNMENTS

“The high rate of adjournments brought about by the pandemic was raised repeatedly as a concern by professional court users. Responses from the Bar provided data to illustrate the impact of adjournments on the profession, with responses from several Circuit Leaders characterising the
threat posed by the loss of income engendered by the crisis as ´existential’. The impact of adjournments was felt to be borne disproportionately by members of the junior bar. Other respondents highlighted the impact of home working arrangements on professionals with caring responsibilities, – stating that the impact on women and carers should be monitored.”

PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT AND CO-OPERATION

“Respondents overwhelmingly recognised the necessity of measures that have been put in place to ensure that cases continue to be heard during this period and were keen to offer practical suggestions to ameliorate the issues that have inevitably arisen as a consequence of the crisis. Many responses began by praising the judiciary for the steps they have taken to ensure that the justice system continues to operate. The response to the review demonstrates the keen interest and willingness of professional court users to offer their time and expertise to support the judiciary and HMCTS in maintaining access to justice.”

REMOTE HEARINGS ARE MORE DIFFICULT AND MORE TIRING

The Report highlights a common issue with remote hearings. They are more tiring for all concerned, including the judge.   Further it questions whether these hearings are, in fact, cheaper and lead to lower costs.

“In spite of this, when asked to compare audio and video hearings to hearings in person, the majority of respondents felt that remote hearings were worse than hearings in person overall and less effective in terms of facilitating participation ² a critical component of procedural justice. Respondents also found remote hearings to be more tiring to participate in than physical hearings, particularly those that proceeded by video. Findings also suggest that remote hearings may not necessarily be cheaper to participate in, which may be counter to assumptions about relative costs being lower.”