legal system

As the government has directed the country to move towards remote working to achieve social distancing, it has had significant implications for the legal system. Since March 27th, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have consolidated their work into fewer legal courts and tribunal buildings to maximise public safety. Law firms have been told not to attend court unless specifically requested, opting instead for remote solutions including video or telephone hearings. But is the entire legal system able to adjust to working from home?

Who Is Impacted?

Upcoming jury trials have been delayed indefinitely, whereas magistrates’ courts are only able to hear critical cases. Top priorities include CPS work, terrorism, government or police work such as urgent protection orders for victims of domestic violence.

The situation is impacting everyone involved in the defence or prosecution of a case, including members of the public, witnesses, court staff, lawyers and barristers. All members of the legal system will be expected to adopt remote working practices where possible.

Technology To Support The Legal System

Some law firms already allow their staff to access their systems remotely to work on case files, or use legal software to collaborate with fellow work colleagues. A London criminal defence firm, Powell Spencer & Partners is one such organisation ready to switch to a remote working model. The firm decided to end all face-to-face contact before they were instructed to by the MoJ to protect staff and clients. A senior partner explains, “Serious custody cases can be centralised and remote working arranged. [We] decided we could not wait any longer for the MoJ.’

Cloud computing is at the forefront of remote working for most law firms. In fact, the MoJ had already been working on plans for courts to migrate to the Cloud Video Platform which is a centralised remote access platform. But without this rolled out, law firms and courts are free to select their own remote access solution, with Skype for Business a popular option. All parties involved in a case will need to agree on their choice of software, together with their designated judge.

Skype for Business has video teleconferencing capabilities, and users can record a remote hearing, which is an absolute necessity. Users can also share documents easily. The recognised etiquette is for a lead legal representative to create a meeting using a program such as Skype for Business or Zoom. They can then invite the judge and other required members to join the meeting. Anyone with the correct authorisation may join a meeting if they have the meeting URL and access codes.

Successful Cases

Since social distancing was introduced, the legal system has completed multiple remote hearings. For example, the Court of Protection heard a dispute case regarding end-of-life arrangements for an elderly stroke victim. In attendance were five parties, 11 witnesses, four experts and members of the press who all used Skype for Business to connect.

Challenges for the Legal System

The sudden leap to a remote working legal system has created some challenges. One of the most pressing issues is how to store the recording of a case after it has ended. The sheer size of a file can be a problem, along with the risk of data corruption.

In cases which require an interpreter, the interpreter not being able to sit with the person who they’re translating for can cause issues. Courts need an urgent solution to this problem so that hearings can flow without interruption.

Finally, while you might expect law firms to have provisions in place to enable a remote working environment, you cannot have the same expectations of members of the public. For those witnesses or defendants who don’t have access to a computer, some hearings will need to happen over the telephone using a conference setup.

It’s possible that the legal system may need to continue working remotely for prolonged periods over the next few years. As flexible working becomes more mainstream, the legal system will survive this trying time. Investing in remote connectivity will allow the legal sector to adapt to the situation and provide greater flexibility going forward.

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