Burgundy in time of coronavirus – 29 March 2020


My isolation site


On-line justice takes hold


When this coronavirus pandemic goes away, life will have changed for ever; and, I hope, in substantial ways. That will depend on how the things our new way of life will have taught us cross over into what efforts we make, for example, to save the earth.


In the meantime it will change the way a lot of people work. Many of us will have learned how much we can work from home; or certainly that we can work from much nearer to where we live and without trailing into an office every day. For a long time I have been very lucky. I am able mostly to work wherever I am. Most of my work is writing and research. So long as I have my lap-top and access to the internet that is my office. Subject to that I can do most of my job from anywhere in the world. Books and a printer are nice too, but not essential.


Traditionally, lawyers, their clients and any witnesses in a case all go to where the judge trying their case is sitting. (Others may stand in court; but judges and magistrates always ‘sit’ to do their job.) Last year I went to court four or five times: twice in London (which is do-able from Paris) twice well outside London (which meant an overnight stay). Over my career, advocacy has taken me to courts in Truro, to Cardiff, Shrewsbury and Mold (Flintshire), to Manchester and Derby, to Cambridge and Peterborough down to London, Chichester and Canterbury; and I have been to most of the courts within the area bounded by those courts.


I had always to turn up in court before a judge, a bench of magistrates or a tribunal to do the advocacy bit of my job. To ask a judge to allow anyone to ‘appear’ by a telephone was generally turned down unless for good reason. We rarely thought to ask; though the rules formally permit ‘use of technology’ (ie for example a telephone, or now Skype). The level of ‘technology’ available to HM Courts and Tribunal Service was limited anyway.


Over the past couple of weeks the number of face-to-face court hearings has reduced substantially. This may mean that in the long-term many more hearings will be dealt with distantly. If judges are willing to co-operate then hearings can be dealt with from wherever are each the individuals concerned. Each of the parties to the proceedings, any advocates, and witnesses in the case can be ‘in court’ and ‘heard’ by the judge, wherever their computer terminal is.


There remains the important ‘I Daniel Blake’ (cannot use a computer) syndrome. More and more parties to proceedings – especially in family breakdown cases – act for themselves because legal aid has gone. There must be local centres for them to go to, if they need it, so they have help to access the necessary equipment. A number of judges suffer from what I am told is called the ‘Press Here Stupid’ problem (from ‘Remote Access’ guidance issued by Mr Justice MacDonald: I am sure I’m prone to that in plenty of areas.)


On-line justice has worked for courts. The idea must be built on massively. Given internet access and electricity, immediately time is used more efficiently; less money is spent on travel and on fuel where travel is by plane, diesel train or by car. There may be issues of open access to courts – the open justice principle – but that is another subject for careful review…


David Burrows

29 March 2020

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