Following the covid-19 outbreak, courts have been forced into an alternative way of working. With the country in lockdown and people ordered by the government to work at home, the courts along with businesses have been transferred into the digital realm. While jury trials have had to be postponed, with only existing cases at the Old Bailey and Cardiff to be resumed in the immediate future, it appears that, the vast majority of court business will continue to be carried out in cyber-space for some time to come.
The potential for this technology is undoubtedly positive. Barristers, particularly those at the start of their careers, are all too aware of the need to travel vast journeys to attend hearings either of their own or to cover members of chambers. The impact on both their well-being and their finances is considerable. Many practitioners who have experienced the physically, mentally and financially draining aspects of the job can see the benefits of being able to conduct hearings remotely from the comfort of their homes, chambers or offices. The time and money saved has the potential, if continued into the future to provide greater opportunities during the working day for case preparation and to avoid lengthy commutes for short, administrative matters. Covid-19 has provided a rare, once in a generation opportunity to redress the work-life imbalance that has been an inevitability of life at the Bar.
However, these positives are some way off at present. The realities on the ground of having over-hauled a system overnight is that there are a number of teething problems. Understandably, those who work in the criminal justice system are not IT specialists and the platforms being used were not specifically designed to provide for digital courts. The result therefore is that of ‘pot luck’ with whether the users are adept at navigating new technology, whether the broadband in the homes of the various participants is up to task, whether the sound and video are of sufficient quality to actively participate in the hearing, all playing an integral part in whether justice can be done. It is important to remember that this transformation was carried out without a consistent plan across all court centres, and without any formal training on how to use any of this software. The outcome is often a tense and difficult one, most of all for the defendants who are frequently left looking at their blank screens or straining to hear snippets of their cases.
The prevailing slogan that ‘we are all in this together’ it trite comfort to stressed lawyers rendered powerless against the range of technological problems and knowing that they are the front line for the frustrations of judges and clients alike. Lawyers acknowledged better than anyone prior to the outbreak of covid, that criminal justice was an imperfect system, on the brink of collapse, being held together largely by good will. It is now dependent on a decent broadband connection and prayers to the ‘technology-gods’ that the links will work.
The improvements to efficiency that a technological revolution in justice may bring are a long way from being consistent but, the potential is there. Practitioners, judges and defendants may be united in their frustrations at the intermittent way in which hearings have worked over the past few weeks but, the reality is that, for better or worse, we have found an alternative method by which to keep (some of) the cogs of justice turning. We have a lot to learn, but necessity forces change and, the struggle that this generation of lawyers is facing is likely to pave the way for a more sophisticated and consistent system in the future. As the saying goes ‘it’s always darkest before the dawn.’
Technology – A lawyer’s Best Fremeny? was written by Siân Beaven for further information on her practice please contact Tony George via our switchboard on 01962 868161 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org