More judges prefer using Microsoft Teams for remote court hearings than a made-to-order video platform bought as part of a £1.2bn Ministry of Justice digitisation initiative, an internal survey has revealed.
As government bans on leaving one’s home for all but the most vital reasons bit into the nation’s economy last year, courtrooms were no different. Civil and criminal cases alike moved to online hearings, with judges and defendants joining remote video calls instead of attending trials in courthouses. During April 2020 up to 90 per cent of court and tribunal hearings took place over video calls.
While that shift to online hearings was foreseen as part of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals’ (HMCTS’) controversial digitisation strategy, something cost-driven mandarins didn’t foresee was their own video platform being deemed worse than commercial-off-the-shelf technology from Zoom – by no less than their own judges.
The embarrassing snippet was revealed in a survey of 1,500 judicial office holders* who HMCTS asked to express an opinion on video conferencing tech in use across Britain’s courts and tribunals. The resulting survey, Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on tribunal hearings, said:
Cloud Video Platform is supplied by Kinly, a firm whose roots lie in a 2018 merger between two SME-sized businesses, Viju and VisionsConnected. The custom HMCTS video platform’s roots lie in the Common Platform Programme, a £280m cost-saving exercise intended to allow the slashing of 5,000 jobs and closures of physical court buildings.
“Respondents indicated that proceeding with hearings remotely has created new practical and attitudinal barriers to accessing the justice system for some parties,” noted the rather gloomy HMCTS survey.
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1,507 judges completed the full survey, which asked for their views of video hearings carried out between March and July 2020.
“In the early stages of the research it was revealed that no central record was kept of the numbers of judicial office holders who had heard cases remotely between 19 March 2020 and 31 July 2020. The absence of this data makes it impossible to assess the response rate to the survey (i.e., how many judicial office holders who were eligible to participate in the survey chose to do so)” added the HMCTS document.
In canned commentary accompanying the report, Sir Keith Lindblom, a senior judge holding the post of Senior President of Tribunals, said: “As we consider how best to go forward in the tribunals when the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, we must look back at what has worked well and what has not. With this in mind, I am grateful for the work that the [Legal Education Foundation] have put into the survey and the report on its findings.”
A HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson said:
“The rapid rollout of remote hearings has helped keep the justice system moving throughout the pandemic, with more than 20,000 hearings now using this technology every week.
“We are carrying out an evaluation of court users’ experiences of video hearings to ensure they work even more effectively in future.” ®
* “Judicial office holders” is a catch-all term. Here it refers to full time tribunal judges, part time deputy judges and non-legally-trained tribunal panel members who sit alongside judges and help decide cases.