COVID-19 Update: Court hearings in the time of the pandemic

Kerem Alev is an experienced litigator and advocate with higher right of audience who acts for businesses and individuals. Here he looks at the changes to the court system driven by COVID-19

The global outbreak of Covid-19 and strict lockdown measures imposed by the UK Government on 23 March 2020, which resulted in the banning of many people from leaving their homes caused disruption and undoubtedly interfered with the progress of claims in the Courts in England & Wales.

The Lord Chief Justice recognised the likely impact of Covid-19 on the administration of justice even before the lockdown in his announcement of 17 March 2020.

Following the lockdown, it wasn’t to be business as usual with the Courts. Indeed, it couldn’t be so we saw significant changes to the Courts processes.


In the beginning

Most Courts were closed for personal attendance. Many (but not all) parties with existing claims saw their forthcoming interlocutory hearings or Trial, which had been listed before the lockdown for hearing after 23 March 2020, adjourned, and quite often with late notice either on the day of the hearing or preceding day. With little direction from the relevant Court before notice, this meant parties (and their representatives) found themselves having little option but to continue investing valuable resources in complying with directions and preparing to attend a hearing which was in the scheme of things unlikely to be heard. For many, this would have caused extreme frustration.

Certain types of claims were also suspended. For some time Winding Up Petitions to wind up Companies were not listed for hearing at all.

Some Courts and Tribunals remained open for urgent matters only. For example, the First Tier Property Tribunal at 10 Alfred Place in London, and the Court of Appeal have not been issuing any new claims or applications until recently.

Residential property claims and some other claims falling within the scope of CPR 55, which normally make up a bulk of the County Courts weekly list remain stayed until the end of August 2020.


More recently & the future.

The Courts have adapted pretty quickly to the disruption caused by the pandemic with hearings and some Trials continuing remotely via telephone or video.

Actually, telephone hearings themselves are not new. They have been around for quite some time, but their use has been inconsistent, and probably they have been underused. One problem which has probably prevented their wider use is the need to book a specific time and this can be quite tricky for a busy Judge having to deal with a busy attended Court list as well.

However, there are many positives to be learned from this and it’s obvious that technology has a vital role to play in the administration of justice. We are now likely to see the use of video and telephone hearings more often. Senior Costs Judge Gordon-Saker issued a practice note for the Senior Courts Costs Office making it clear that remote hearings will continue to have a significant part in the future of that Court even after social distancing requirements are removed.

Mrs Justice Cockerill told a meeting of the Commercial Court Users Group recently that Court staff and Judges were actively thinking about keeping remote hearings as a default position.

Further, the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS have been working on a new video platform which enables remote cases to be heard by the Civil and Family Courts. Called the Cloud Video Platform it will presumably replace the likes of Skype for Business and Zoom which are currently used by the Civil Courts for video hearings.

Improvements are still needed in respect of electronic filing in the County Courts and Tribunals, and Court users must learn to improve how electronic documents and bundles are presented for use (some guidance on preparation of PDF Files with bookmarking, OCR and ensuring PDF page numbers are in sync with the bundle pages have been issued already), but it is apparent that we are in a new era. The pandemic has helped spur change to how Court hearings and Trials are typically conducted and had it not been for the lockdown, Courts would likely have continued to resist, or at least not prioritise, change.

Remote hearings, if used properly, can help minimise attendance costs as well as save time.



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