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Courts and coronavirus

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Last updated 26th May 2020 (part update 6th December 2020).

Courts are moving to much greater use of remote audio and video links for hearings, due to the coronavirus (Covid-19). This should be done in a way which takes stammering and other disabilities into account.

Man speaking on phone in front of laptop.

Remote hearings

Big changes are happening in the court system. Many more people are likely to take part in court hearings using audio or video links, to support social distancing.

‘Teleconferencing’ (audio links) and videoconferencing were already being used by the courts and have been rapidly extended: see HMCTS telephone and video hearings during coronavirus outbreak (gov.uk). There is court guidance on What to expect when joining a telephone or video hearing (gov.uk).

A message to civil and family court judges made clear that it will not be business as normal:

The default position now in all jurisdictions must be that hearings should be conducted with one, more than one or all participants attending remotely. That will not always be possible. Sensible precautions should be taken when people attend a hearing…
Coronavirus (COVID-19): Message from the Lord Chief Justice to judges in the Civil and Family Courts (judiciary.uk), 19th March 2020.

Rules in civil and family courts are already flexible enough to enable telephone and video hearings of almost everything: Coronavirus (COVID-19): Message from the Lord Chief Justice… (judiciary.uk), 19th March. The powers of criminal courts to use telephone and video links have been extended by Schedules 23 and 24 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (legislation.gov.uk).

Some court and tribunal buildings are currently closed. Hearings which cannot be heard by video or telephone and which cannot be delayed are being consolidated into the buildings which remain open: HMCTS weekly operational summary on courts and tribunals during coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak (gov.uk), updated weekly, and Priority courts to make sure justice is served (gov.uk), 27th March.

Some jury trials (gov.uk) have commenced under special arrangements to maintain the safety of all participants, including jurors.

Impact on stammering

People who stammer may find it easier not having to actually speak in a courtroom; they may prefer doing it via a video or audio link. On the other hand, people who stammer often have particular difficulty with telephone calls.

What works best for someone who stammers will depend on the individual. There may be a choice between actually speaking in the court (where there may be far fewer people than normal) or via a live link (either audio or video, there may not necessarily be a choice between them). The judge rather than the person who stammers will have the final say, but presumably the individual’s views on what would help them communicate better should be an important factor. Whatever format is adopted, various adjustments may be helpful: see Appearing in court>Speaking in court, and alternatives.

A person who stammers or who has any other disability should tell the court or tribunal of any problems they may have with what is proposed, and if possible what would help (see the HMCTS quote below).

Taking disability into account

There is clearly awareness that disabilities need to be taken into account in the new arrangements for courts. Guidance on telephone and video hearings says:

Reasonable adjustments

We know that people with disabilities sometimes need additional support. This can mean that we need to provide something different so you can access and use our services in the same way as a person without a disability. We often call this a reasonable adjustment.

If you need a reasonable adjustment, tell us using the contact details you have been sent. We will discuss this with the judge hearing your case. Judges are committed to making sure everyone can give their best evidence, participate effectively and have a fair hearing.

What to expect when joining a telephone or video hearing (gov.uk), updated 25th November 2020.

Guidance to civil and family court judges says:

Unrepresented parties may have difficulty with telephone hearings. Sensitivity will be required. It is very unlikely that a telephone hearing would work if a litigant in person … has other needs or disabilities which would militate against telephone hearings.
Coronavirus (COVID-19): Message from the Lord Chief Justice to judges in the Civil and Family Courts (judiciary.uk), 19th March.

Also, for example, Schedule 23 para 2(4) of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (legislation.gov.uk) says the court may not give a direction for someone to take part in eligible criminal proceedings through a live audio or video link unless the court is satisfied that it is in the interests of justice for the person concerned to do so, and the parties to the proceedings have been given the opportunity to make representations.

A letter from the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to the Prime Minister Human rights and equality considerations in responding to the coronavirus pandemic (equalityhumanrights.com), 19th March 2020 made that point that with courtroom video and audio links now being expanded, appropriate adjustments must be put in place to maintain the ability of people with disabilities to access a fair trial. Also from the EHRC: Preventing the health crisis from becoming a justice crisis (equalityhumanrights.com), 22nd April.

The court’s duty to make reasonable adjustments still applies in the present circumstances, but doubtless the coronavirus and the importance of social distancing will be taken into account.

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