PCS has raised grave concerns about government plans to move to fully-video court hearings following the first independent study of its usage reported technology failures.
Fully-video hearings were tested for the first time as part of government’s £1bn court reform programme which is likely to cause 6,500 job losses and further courts and office closures. A move to such hearings in the future is being used as a justification to close courts and to reduce staff numbers.
A review of the small-scale pilot of fully-video hearings in the First-Tier Tribunal (Tax Chamber) between March and July 2018 was undertaken by the London School of Economics. PCS believes the study shows that far more needs to be done before any further roll-out is made of video hearings.
We are gravely concerned by the positive spin being placed on the outcome of the pilot by HMCTS. It is clear that the current state of the technology is poor and that those hearings which did proceed in the pilots were only able to do so due to significant technological support. Our members dealing with poor HMCTS technology day in day out who must adopt workarounds to get many video hearings to work do not have such support available to them.
We are concerned that of the 11 very carefully selected hearings chosen for the pilots, only eight video hearings were completed. Three hearings experienced technology fails on the day; two of which had to be conducted as a telephone hearing and one which was rescheduled as a physical hearing.
Despite considerable technical support from HM Courts and Tribunals Service, seven of the eight completed hearings experienced difficulties which included issues around wi-fi, audibility, visibility of parties on the screen or access to documents. The large number of support people involved in each hearing meant that most technology difficulties were dealt with quickly and the evaluation identified issues around how HMCTS will be able to maintain this level of support.
The researchers also warned of the possibility of ‘self-selection bias’ as they were not involved in the selection of cases. All users had previous experience with video-communication technology at work or at home, such as Skype or FaceTime, with half of them reporting being ‘frequent’ or ‘very frequent’ users of this technology. As a result it was acknowledged that the report cannot comment on the video hearing experience for people with vulnerabilities and that further research would be required.
Concerns were raised by judges about the suitability of fully-video hearings.
Two judges commented that video hearings take longer than telephone or in-person hearings and that physical hearings would still be preferred over a video hearing. It was noted that video hearings should only be offered if they are of real advantage to the individual.
One judge stated: "I think that video hearings should only be used where they are better than the alternative (e.g. where a party could not attend otherwise); they are not as good as ‘in person’ hearings and should not be used just because they might be cheaper.”
The evaluation noted that future developments need to include a strategy for addressing user vulnerabilities in video hearings or to identify a minimum standard of resilience that one needs to meet in order to participate in a video hearing instead of an in-person hearing. Other key areas for improvement include a strategy for the sharing of documents electronically, how to ensure open justice, and streamlining protocols for judges. Future research should also collect data on video hearing outcomes, such as judicial decision-making, procedural justice and fairness.
Vast improvement needed
Not only can these hearings not be deemed a success until the technology is vastly improved, but also until significant research has been carried out and concluded that they do not negatively impact in any way on the quality of justice delivered. We are only too mindful that the only independent research that has been carried out in relation to video hearings in criminal courts concluded that such hearings cost more and that those appearing remotely were more likely to be remanded in custody or sentenced to a custodial sentence.