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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Report calls for reform of remote civil courts

Report calls for reform of remote civil courts


A major report published today on the impact of covid-19 on civil court users recommends immediate steps to be taken

A major report published today on the impact of covid-19 on civil court users recommends immediate steps to be taken, including around the experience of non-professionals involved in remote hearings.

The rapid review, conducted by the Civil Justice Council with the support of the Legal Education Foundation, has been widely praised for its depth.

The review launched on 1 May 2020 and concluded on 15 May.

The focus was on the experiences of court users whose hearings took place during the first week of May and the review attracted an “exceptional” 1,077 responses – the overwhelming majority from professional court users.

Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton, who chairs the independent Civil Justice Council, welcomed the rapid review of the pandemic’s impact on the civil justice system, particularly the swift expansion of the use of remote hearings.

When he announced the rapid review, the Master of the Rolls stated: “This review is a chance for users to give feedback on how the changes are impacting them and to suggest areas of improvement.

“The evidence collected by this review will be invaluable in shaping the way forward for the civil justice system, both immediately and in the longer term.”

The lead researcher Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research at the Legal Education Foundation, authored the report and said they had to work “extremely quickly at a time when everyone is under huge pressure”.

Byrom added: “The volume of responses reflects a wide recognition of the importance of understanding the impact of covid-19 on the justice system and supporting the judiciary and court service in their efforts to ensure that hearings are able to take place.”

She said the report highlights “systemic deficiencies” in the information currently available on the operation of the civil justice system.

“The findings underscore the vital need to invest in robust systems for capturing data in order to review the operation of the civil justice system”, she said, “and build the evidence base for effective practice.

“Improving the data that is collected is vital to make the voices of litigants in person and lay users of the justice system heard.”

The report recommends immediate steps that could be taken to build on existing practice and ensure remote hearings support access to justice.

This includes steps to help the recovery and managing of the case backlog; improving the equipment provided to judges; expanding the use of remote hearings to other types of hearing and to other areas such as commercial disputes.

The most urgent priority identified by the report “relates to the need to understand the experience of non-professional court users, particularly those who are considered vulnerable under existing law and practice directions, those with protected characteristics and those who are litigants in person”.

Further priorities for evaluation include understanding the impact of remote hearings on judicial wellbeing, experience and training needs; their impact on outcomes and on open justice.

Sir Terence described the production of such an “informative” report as “the result of an astonishing effort by all involved”.

He added: “The report provides a valuable snapshot of the effect of the pandemic on civil court users relatively soon after the pandemic began.

“I hope it will form a useful basis for further research and review in due course.”

He said the Civil Justice Council will consider the recommendations carefully, particularly in relation to the consequences of ending the current stay on housing possession claims.

Sir Terence said he has established a cross-sector working group to help address these concerns.

Byrom welcomed the commitment to use the report as a basis for informing further research and review.