Civil Justice Council publishes report on the impact of COVID-19 on civil court users

The review, which was conducted with the support of the Legal Education Foundation, launched on 1 May 2020 and concluded on 15 May 2020. It was particularly aimed at court users whose hearings took place between 1 May and 7 May 2020. Welcoming the report, The Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton said that the report provides “a valuable snapshot of the effect of the pandemic on civil court users relatively soon after the pandemic began”. Over 1,000 responses to the review were received.

The report makes a number of recommendations, which Sir Terence said that the Courts and Tribunal Judiciary will “consider carefully”.

Dr Natalie Byrom, Director of Research at the Legal Education Foundation, who led the research and drafted the report, said that the report highlighted “systemic deficiencies in the information that is currently available on the operation of the civil justice system”, and that the findings underscored “the vital need to invest in robust systems for capturing data in order to review the operation of the civil justice system and build the evidence base for effective practice”.

Key findings include:

  • almost half of all remote hearings experienced technical difficulties: in 44.7% of hearings, respondents reported that there were problems with the technology used. More technical difficulties were experienced during fully video hearings than fully audio hearings;
  • as for technical support, 30.4% of respondents reported that nobody had provided technical support. Many respondents reported that technical support had not been used or needed. 18.1% of respondents said that the judge’s clerk had provided technical support and 24.1% of respondents said that “someone else” had delivered this function. HMCTS provided technical assistance in 19.5% of hearings;
  • broadly speaking, lawyers were satisfied with their experience of remote hearings: 71.5% described their experience as positive or very positive. Costs hearings were more likely to be experienced positively than interlocutory hearings, and enforcement hearings, appeals and trials were less likely to be experienced positively than interlocutory hearings. The findings suggest tentative support for reserving remote hearings for matters where the outcome is likely to be less contested, where the hearing is interlocutory in nature and for hearings where both parties are represented. Further research with a representative sample of court users is needed to verify these findings;
  • overall, however, the majority of respondents felt that remote hearings were worse than hearings in person and less effective in terms of facilitating participation. Respondents also found remote hearings to be more tiring than physical hearings, particularly video hearings. Findings also suggest that remote hearings may not necessarily be cheaper;
  • journalists and court reporters reported that they had largely been able to attend hearings where they wished to do so. Nobody reported that their access had been refused. Those who had been unable to attend attributed it to the failure of the court to respond to requests in a timely fashion or difficulties in identifying the correct person to contact to request attendance;
  • some respondents made recommendations to support the continued operation of the civil justice system in the short to medium term. Large commercial firms advocated for the expanded use of remote hearings in commercial litigation, with limited exceptions relating to cases where foreign language interpretation is required. There was clear willingness and enthusiasm from commercial firms to reimagine what a “Rolls-Royce” service looks like in commercial litigation, with predicted benefits for the economy and the environment; and
  • many respondents highlighted the urgent need to improve the quality and quantity of data and information available about the operation of the civil justice system. Recommendations were made in relation to both the management information collected and published by HMCTS and primary legal information (listings, case documents and judgments).

To access the report, click here.