Remote court hearings – what to expect and how to prepare
With thanks to Hannah Cosgrove of Latta & Co Solicitors who supported the drafting of this blog.
Since the start of the pandemic, many court hearings which would usually take place in the physical courtroom have moved to a remote setting. Remote hearings have been taking place by telephone or video-conferencing call. This has been an adjustment for everyone: clients, witnesses, solicitors and the courts themselves.
With the easing of lockdown restrictions at the end of April 2021, it has been announced that criminal court hearings will be in person again, but the vast majority of civil (non-criminal) court cases will continue remotely.
We understand that having a court hearing over the phone or by video call from your own home might seem daunting. This is why we’ve put together some information and recommendations which you might find helpful if you will be attending a remote hearing.
- It’s important to think about where you will be for the hearing — you will need a private and quiet place.
- Think about what can be seen on the video. Your background should be as plain as possible. Try to avoid having writing on the walls or items like football colours on display.
- Remember that you might be seeing the judge in their own home, and that they will be able to see you. This might feel overwhelming and different, but it doesn’t mean your evidence will be taken any less seriously.
- As the restrictions change, you might be able to go to your solicitor’s office to take part in the hearing if doing so from home is difficult for you. You should ask your solicitor about this option.
- If you have children at home, you may find it difficult to participate in a remote hearing from home. The court or tribunal might be able to offer you childcare depending on the circumstances. If you require childcare, speak to your solicitor or the court/tribunal as soon as you can.
2. Giving evidence
- Evidential hearings (that is, hearings where evidence is presented) can involve witnesses looking at documents. Usually, the witness would be handed a physical document in the courtroom. With a remote hearing, that’s not possible. However, our experience is that the courts tend to use the “share screen” option to view electronic versions of documents. This means that documents that may be sensitive do not need to be sent to witnesses in advance.
- Once the hearing has started, particularly when giving evidence, you won’t be able to get up from the computer screen. Think about what you might need in advance (for example, water, tissues, your mobile phone) and have them with you.
- Remember to mute yourself when you are not speaking to avoid background noise during the hearing.
3. Requesting 'special measures'
- In court, you can request special measures in certain circumstances, such as when a case is related to domestic abuse, sexual crime or stalking, or when the witness is a child or an adult with a physical or mental disability, among others. This can include having a screen to hide you when giving evidence, so that only the judge and lawyers can see you, and having a person to support you, for example.
- In a remote hearing setting, it will be more difficult to put special measures in place. However, the court may still be able to provide you with some measures. You could request to give your evidence in person in court, for example. The sooner you let the court or your solicitor know your concerns, the more likely it is they will be able to accommodate you.
- Please note that special measures for most criminal cases have not been affected by coronavirus restrictions.
4. Technical issues
- Think about the device you are using – do you have a laptop with a webcam? Can you use a tablet or mobile device? Remember that calls coming through to your mobile might interrupt the hearing. If you can use a laptop or tablet, that might be the better option. If you are concerned about equipment, speak to your solicitor or to the court. The more time people have to try to help you, the better.
- The courts will facilitate a test to make sure your equipment and connection is working in advance. This is a good opportunity to make sure you can be heard ok – are you sitting close enough to the camera, for example? Remember, this is new to everyone involved, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- The judge or sheriff should take the lead on technical issues. For example, if your screen freezes or connection drops. It is a good idea to have an alternative way to contact your solicitor if you need to speak to them. This could include having a mobile phone at hand to call them if you are connected to the hearing through a laptop. You could use the chat function on the video call to communicate issues too, but keep in mind that all other people in the hearing can see this chat and they will likely be able to read what you post there.
- If you do have a mobile phone with you, remember to switch it off during the hearing. Everyone will be able to hear it ringing if it goes off.
5. Language interpreter
- You can still have an interpreter for a remote hearing and they should be visible on the screen. Again, the judge or sheriff should take the lead on any technical issues involving the interpreter.
6. Hybrid hearings/attending court in person
- It might be possible for the hearing to take place with some people in the court and others connecting remotely. In addition, most criminal cases have seen little changes for witnesses.
- Special measures can still be put in place when giving evidence in person, such as giving evidence from a different room in the court or requesting a supporter. Please speak to your solicitor, the Procurator Fiscal (PF) or witness support services as early as possible if you need any assistance (such as childcare, interpreters, support).
- The jury will be in a separate building, but the set up will be largely the same for witnesses as it was before COVID-19. The main difference will be how the court itself looks. Expect to have a see-through screen around the witness box, for example. If you are attending a jury trial as a witness, watch this video to find out what to expect.
- If you are attending court in person, remember that you will need to wear a mask. You won’t need to wear a mask when giving your verbal evidence, but you might be asked to keep it on whenever you are not speaking.
- Depending on the restrictions of the specific court or tribunal, you may not be able to have someone with you. You might be asked to wash your hands or wait outside to be collected by security and to provide a contact telephone number to court staff. Keep in mind that the specific COVID-19 safety procedures may be different for each court/tribunal.
- If you are concerned about taking public transport during the pandemic, it is best to speak to you solicitor, the PF or the court as soon as possible. There may be something they can do for you, but it’s likely to be dealt with on a case by case basis.
The court/tribunal and the solicitors involved will usually try to be as accommodating as possible. However, they can only make arrangements if they know about something you need. We strongly recommend that you make any requests and ask all your questions as soon as you can to avoid delays in your case.
If you receive a letter from the court/tribunal, use the contact details in the letter rather than general contact telephone numbers. This should mean you get through to the right person who can help.
Above all, remember that everyone is still adapting to working in this way –there are no hard and fast rules, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.