The Pros and Cons of Advocacy in LockdownGlenn Parsons
From the day that Lockdown was announced, ‘Remote Hearings’ became the default position. However, from 11th May, Leeds Crown Court began listing face-to-face bail, PTPH cases and committal for sentences.
There are now a variety of ways that solicitors and barristers can appear in court, on the North Eastern Circuit, but what are the pros and cons?
These are of course very convenient for the obvious reasons that it can be done from home. No robes required, just smarts on the top half only. The hearings are given timeslots so there is very little waiting around, as long as the technology works!
The following types of remote hearings are currently being used on Circuit:
Although Zoom proved to be instantly popular for Circuit conferences and seminars, Mess and quiz nights, HMCTS refused to sanction the use of this platform for Court work. The reasons quoted were incompatibility with the judicial laptop, security concerns and the cost of licences which had to be purchased for meetings over 40 minutes in length.
BT Meet Me
This is a purely telephone phone based medium.
- Used mainly for bail and other short hearings.
- No jacket required! You can stay in your pyjamas.
- Only the court can set up the call.
- The more people connected to the call, the more difficult it is to know who is speaking and when it is your turn.
- Your client cannot be a party.
- Needs to be used in conjunction with the DCS if any documents are to be relied on.
Skype for Business (SfB)
The preferred option in the courtroom.
- SfB is already on the judicial laptop.
- Anyone without a SfB can join a remote hearing as a guest, simply by clicking an invitation.
- The ease of access has already enabled witnesses to give evidence from a laptop from their own homes, an effective ‘Newton’ hearing at Leeds CC and for family members and interested parties, such as the Press, to be present when sentencing takes place.
- SfB is compatible with a normal Skype account.
- The hearings can be recorded within the platform.
- Documents can be shared on screen.
- Skype for business is being phased-out so if you don’t already have it, you cannot now download it (although it can be accessed through Microsoft Teams) which means that you cannot host a meeting, only accept an invitation from an established host.
- There are no ‘built in’ conference facilities. If you want to have a conference with the client from the comfort of your spare bedroom, you have to ask everyone else to log out and request the court clerk to point the court screen at whichever screen the defendant is on in the court room and then shout at your client over the divide, none of which is very private.
- It is not possible to have ‘breakout rooms’, which again means that advocates cannot talk privately if anyone else is logged in.
Cloud Video Platform – CVP
This platform was not scheduled to be rolled out for another 2 years. However, the Coronavirus emergency has meant that its implementation has been brought forward, with it currently being trialled on the North Eastern Circuit only.
- Very easy to use with the invitation links being placed on the ‘Update Case’ page on the DCS.
- The system allows for a 15-minute private client conference direct to the prison both before and after the hearing, although you need to click on a separate link for the conferences, as opposed to the hearing link.
- Documents can be shared.
- Other interested parties can join the hearing.
- It is cloud based which means that it can be beamed easily into different court rooms.
- It has been beset with technical problems in the way that Skype rarely is.
- The quality of the audio and the visuals is not as good as Zoom and SfB.
Appearing in Person
Leeds Crown Court building has now been the subject of a badly needed deep-clean and an impressive array of measures have been put in place to enforce social distancing and maintain everyone’s personal safety.
- Face- to-face consultations with your client and opponent, while of course maintaining social distancing.
- You are allocated a 45-minute timeslot which gives ample time to obtain judicial intervention, if required.
- There is a far greater chance of resolving your case if that is desired.
- The emphasis at court now is on safety.
- Hand sanitiser is available throughout the building.
- Only 2 face- to-face cases will be in run in the court building at any one time and only 1 case on each floor.
- Entry to the building has been stream-lined and as long as you have the professional users app, no searches will take place.
- You do not need to robe so can travel light.
- The court security team wear face masks and advocates can wear them too if they wish.
- The court now employs a strict one-way system around the building.
- Marshalls are on hand on every stairwell and on each floor to enforce social distancing.
- Once in the Courtroom, social distancing is strictly observed between all parties and court staff.
- When the hearing is over, everyone leaves the court building straightaway and cleaners disinfect Counsel’s benches before the next case begins.
- The one-way system will take you out of the building by a different route to avoid you coming into contact with those entering the building for the next hearings.
- Having to break lockdown and travel to Court.
- Concerns that the process has not been the subject of risk or health assessments.
- Concerns that face-to face hearings are unnecessary if the client has indicated at the Magistrates that he/she is going to plead not guilty. Some argue that the case could simply be managed remotely.
- Many defendants and counsel may well have no choice but to travel to Court by public transport, which is not currently advised by the Government due to the infection risks.
- The defendant can still bring 2 people with them, which may compromise your attempts to maintain social distancing.
- The only place to hold a conference is in the canteen, although screens have been erected between tables which creates a degree of privacy.
- Access to the toilets is now monitored.
- The lifts are out of bounds unless you have mobility issues.
- The robing room and advocates’ lounge are closed.
- If your case is delayed or stood down there is nowhere to wait in the building.
- The system can only cope with a small number of cases.
- Requests for a remote hearing instead of face- to-face, are far seldom granted.
However, The Recorder of Leeds, His Honour Judge Kearl QC has published figures for the first 7 days of face to face hearings at Leeds. They show that of the 74 cases heard, 55% pleaded guilty and 60% of those were sentenced there and then. Fears that defendants would not attend have proved unfounded as only 7 bench warrants were issued. Therefore, it seems that the push will inevitably be for more face-to-face hearings. However, many hope that one of the legacies of advocacy during lockdown, will be that the courts will continue to allow advocates to make greater use of the remote hearings and make early morning trips across the Pennines for a mention fee a thing of the past.
Park Square Barristers
21st May 2020