YOU CAN TEACH AN OLD JUDGE NEW TRICKS: TECHNOLOGY “EMBRACE IT: IT WILL MAKE YOUR JOB EASIER”

In S (Fact-Finding) [2020] EWFC 71 HHJ Jack sitting as a High Court Judge heard a case remotely.  I will leave the analysis of his robust findings in the case – where the children were returned to their parents –  to the family law bloggers (although I was tempted to include it in the “proving things” series.  I will concentrate on that part that deals with the judge’s experience of the use of Zoom and Caselines. It is interesting to see his observations on the use of technology in court.

 

“I thoroughly recommend the experience. Embrace it: it will make your life easier. In case you are thinking that I am some young computer-whizz, that is certainly not the case: I am fast approaching compulsory retirement age, and am only moderately technologically aware. The system is very user-friendly, and saves time and effort.”

 

THE CASE

The judge had heard a fact finding hearing which was heard between the 18th May 2020 and the 29th July 2020.   He found that the local authority had failed to prove its case.  However, it is interesting to see the view that the judge took in relation to the use of technology.

SEEING INSIDE THE HOME

The judge commented on the benefits of a Zoom hearing where he was able to see inside.

  ” During the mother’s evidence, (on Zoom), the mother took the court on a guided tour of the family home. It was clearly a very child-orientated home, even though the children have not been living there for the last 15 months. I wish I saw more images like that during the course of my Care work. Unsurprisingly, children from such homes are rarely the subject of Care proceeding”.

THE USE OF TECHNOLOGY

Equally interesting was the judge’s comments on the use of technology.
Zoom
This hearing was conducted throughout on the on-line conferencing platform, Zoom. Fortunately, that had been arranged, and preparations made, before the judiciary were told that we could not use Zoom. In the circumstances, I was told we could continue with the existing arrangements. I am very grateful that that was allowed: ever since, I have been hearing reports of problems associated with  hearing the more complex cases on CVP. The general view seems to be that, once there are more than a fairly limited number of participants in a CVP hearing, the problems proliferate, with a resulting waste of time and an increase in stress for all concerned. I have also been told that, if one party has a bad connection, it appears to affect the functioning of the whole hearing.
By contrast, this hearing, with upwards of twenty people joining most of the time, has been largely trouble-free. The only significant problems we experienced appeared to be the result of individual participants having difficulties with their home wi-fi connections, rather than problems arising from the platform itself.
Those of us who participated in the hearing are all indebted to Miss Lee QC, Leading Counsel for the local authority. She kindly took it upon herself to manage the Zoom aspect of the hearings, sending out invitations, taking responsibility for recording the hearing, and forwarding the recordings to the court. Those were tasks which would normally have to be performed by a member or members of court staff. I do not suggest, for a moment, that that is something which should normally be expected of counsel. Certainly in this instance, Miss Lee had more than enough on her hands running a complicated case for the local authority. However, she took on the additional burden I have mentioned and, by doing so, enabled the hearing to proceed smoothly on a platform which worked well. She thereby assisted us all.
Caselines
The case was heard using Caselines, an online system of electronic bundles rather than paper bundles. This is the second long case I have heard using Caselines (the first would, I am told, have involved 47 lever-arch files of papers). I have found it invaluable in both cases. It makes the judge’s task much easier, primarily because it completely removes the need for the judge to physically organise and manhandle vast quantities of papers, and locate page references. That is all done by the advocates (or their junior or solicitor) taking witnesses (and everyone else involved in the case) to a particular page by issuing a page-direction which is sent to every computer logged on to that particular case. By the same token, the witness does not have to find page references, nor does there need to be a member of court staff assisting the witness to do so. Witnesses giving evidence remotely can be directed to documents which are not physically present at their location. The list of benefits goes on. I found it speeded up the proceedings significantly, and reduced considerably the stress on me, as the judge. I found it speeded up the evidence, in particular, because I was relieved of the tasks of bundle-management and page-finding. I also found it made it far easier to write the judgment: I did not have to take large numbers of lever-arch files to wherever I wanted to work; I only needed my laptop, and the ability to log on to Caselines. I imagine the same is true for advocates preparing the case or preparing written submissions.
For any judge or advocate facing, for the first time, a hearing using electronic bundles (at least, if they are on Caselines, the only system with which I am familiar), I thoroughly recommend the experience. Embrace it: it will make your life easier. In case you are thinking that I am some young computer-whizz, that is certainly not the case: I am fast approaching compulsory retirement age, and am only moderately technologically aware. The system is very user-friendly, and saves time and effort.