Interestingly, this is the first full evaluation published by HMCTS on remote hearings and with 8,328 survey respondents and 180 interviewees, the majority of whom were public users, the report offers a unique insight into how this practice has been received by those who use it.
Practical challenges of remote hearings
It is perhaps unsurprising, given the speed of the adoption of remote hearings during the pandemic, that practical challenges feature heavily in this report. One in five remote hearing public users reported experiencing issues with technology and 47% of judges, 61% of legal representatives and 60% of HMCTS staff experienced technical difficulties in 1–25% of their remote hearings. Pre-hearing instructions were found to be helpful: 'Those who experienced technical issues during remote hearings were less likely to have had pre-hearing instructions (76% compared to 90% of those without technical issues).'2Ibid, page 15.
This finding makes the work of Professor Linda Mulcahy and her team at the University of Oxford
all the more important in their project to produce introductory videos for lay users participating in remote hearings. Alongside pre-hearing guidance, the HMCTS report also found that formal introductions, outlining ground rules and general housekeeping significantly improved public users’ and observers’ experiences of remote hearings and they felt more able to contribute when necessary.
Perceptions of remote hearings
Two-thirds of all public users (67%) felt that remote hearings were an ‘acceptable alternative’ during the pandemic, and over half (56%) of public users felt that remote hearings would be acceptable after the pandemic, although the report highlights that users generally preferred to repeat the hearing format they had experienced, perhaps creating a ‘better the devil you know’ bias. The preference public users felt for remote hearings over in-person hearings (59% of public users not classed as vulnerable would prefer to attend remotely) also fell in particular public user categories – vulnerable individuals, those with support needs and those who were dissatisfied with their hearing outcome.
Professional users gave mixed responses. Legal representatives were more positive about remote hearings than judges or HMCTS staff – 35% of legal representatives preferred remote hearings to in-person hearings, compared with 13% of judges and 15% of HMCTS staff. When asked if they thought remote hearings were an ‘acceptable alternative’ beyond the pandemic, the distinction remained, yet with an increase across all groups – 77% of legal representatives said they were acceptable, compared with 49% of judges and 59% of HMCTS staff. This suggests that many respondents thought that remote hearings were acceptable, if not preferable in all circumstances.
A key finding from the report is the work required to ensure access to justice can be maintained for all user groups in remote hearings. It notes that a slim majority of professional users (50% of judges, 51% of HMCTS staff and 63% of legal representatives) were satisfied that it was possible to put reasonable adjustments in place for those who have difficulties accessing remote hearings. It is perhaps surprising that a significantly higher percentage of legal representatives considered remote hearings to be an ‘acceptable alternative’ beyond the pandemic than were satisfied that it was possible to put reasonable adjustments in place in remote hearings. It is unclear whether this simply represents the way that data was collected or an observation that warrants further analysis.
More data needed
During 2022, HMCTS will be transitioning to the bespoke Video Hearings service
it has recently developed. Data collection on its use and impact will be critical in ensuring justice remains accessible for all. This research was partly limited by a shortage of available postal addresses for public users in civil appeal hearings and immigration and asylum tribunals, which meant that neither jurisdiction was included in the public user survey. Public users in the latter tribunal in particular may have specific vulnerabilities, such as a greater need for interpretation services or more limited access to quiet, private spaces at home, and it would be worth better understanding how these interact with remote hearings. The report was also limited by a lack of any assessment of the impact of remote hearings on hearing outcomes and engagement levels, and in particular how these factors interacted with protected characteristics.
Given the limited satisfaction with the provision for reasonable adjustments in remote hearings, such assessments are vitally important, but impossible without long-term embedded data collection. Delivering on the HMCTS data strategy, as The Legal Education Foundation and others have long been calling for
, and gathering data on both the use and impact of remote hearings are essential components of future evaluations of digital justice.