I have yesterday finished a full day remote hearing in the Court of Appeal with the usual three Justices – I believe for each of the Justices involved it was their first.
Overall everyone will be pleased to hear I thought it went really well; everyone was able to participate fairly, connection issues were all overcome, the presiding Lord Justice readily presided effectively – and a sweet practice developed spontaneously amongst Counsel of holding up their hands on the few occasions they wished to speak out of turn.
A few comments for practitioners:
- Overall effectiveness: very good. At no point did I feel any party was not able to follow the arguments or find necessary documents. The three Lord and Lady Justices, who were in separate locations, put detailed questions and pressed those arguments they wished to explore effectively. The Court hearing overall ran efficiently.
- The platform: skype for business. Although I had skype for business installed as we use it in Chambers, I had to dial in through their web app (although it purported to enable other options).
- Trial run. We had a short “technical” trial-run the day before the hearing, with the aim being to iron out all connection issues. We also had a 15 minute earlier “technical start” on the day, to enable people to manage connection.
- The platform display: shows “the last x speakers”. My solicitor could only ever see 4 speakers. I could see 6 speakers – this may be a function of screen size. However, as there were 3 parties, and 3 judges, when the junior to one of the parties spoke just before we resumed at 2pm, this then meant that I couldn’t see Counsel acting for the Appellant until he happened to speak. I could see and hear all three Justices, and whatever Counsel was speaking, at all times.
- Contact details for opposing Counsel: There was one maybe two points where Counsel communicated directly with each other via mobile, for example when there was a minor connectivity issue. This is a useful back-up, so a good idea where appropriate to have opposing counsel’s mobile numbers as well as email addresses – especially in the early days of video hearings for us all. Plainly mobiles should not usually be used in Court and an opposing Counsel sought the Court’s permission (readily granted) to contact me via telephone at one point.
- Connectivity issues. My computer which uses skype for business normally did not like the web app function. I could see, and hear, and from my perspective had my video running and my microphone (not muted), but the Court couldn’t see or hear me. This was sorted before I needed to speak. It involved the web app overriding my computer settings after a period of time had elapsed but my computer displaying its usual settings. The Court was very understanding of all connectivity issues – they had had a few, too. This was despite having had a trial the day before and that it had worked during the technical start part of the hearing.
- Screens and devices: I would say ideally to have at least two separate devices if possible, and perhaps three depending on the number of bundles in the case. I have one main computer on which I am running additional screens, and I used an ipad to have an entirely separate, private link with my solicitor (any tablet or smart-phone could do this). My solicitor and I used zoom, on the type/chat function. Additional screens enabled me to readily have open multiple documents in a Court of Appeal hearing with multiple bundles; in other cases this may not be necessary. But, apparently people running apple devices are finding it much harder – certainly when I tried to use an ipad to overcome my connectivity issues, it simply didn’t work.
- Ethernet – I use a powerline adaptor and extender in my house to use the electricity circuit to extend the wifi and create an ethernet-like network, to which I then connect with an ethernet cable. This holds a strong link.
- Court-room etiquette, dynamics and hand gestures: this all functioned effectively, with one notable adjustment – the default gesture on a couple of occasions became that Counsel raised their hands when they wished to speak out of turn, to attract everyone’s attention and then be invited by the presiding judge. Like being at school. But it worked, and was courteous.
- Mute when not speaking. This is obvious. In the Court of Appeal, all video was also muted other than for the Court and Counsel (leaders only with video, for parties with more than one Counsel).
- Electronic bundles – electronic bundles, and electronic mark-up software all worked well. Practitioners may be interested to know that I divided the bundles up across my screens so I could readily access any particular bundle.
- Page numbers – Counsel were largely all electronic, but the judges had a mix of hard copy and soft copy. Knowing electronic page numbers in bundles was helpful. Unfortunately electronic and paper copies differed on some bundles – one to avoid if possible, but everyone coped adequately, and essentially similar to many pre-existing bundle issues as exemplified in Sedley’s Laws of Documents.
- Background issues. Be aware that the screen people can see is wider than what you may see. There are many things in backgrounds capable of being of interest or a distraction. Everyone’s background was appropriate. Many people will be pressing into service living rooms and other areas of their house as their usual workplace is closed. But distractions included: a ceiling lights, choices of pictures, mirrors and other items of home decoration, and try to avoid having a window behind you – close your curtains if you do have a window behind you. One cannot help but look at the backgrounds when focusing carefully on the same individuals for some hours. But it was also endearing and perhaps even humbling to see glimpses of people’s home environments during this period of social isolation as we all work together to keep the justice system functioning. Just – be aware you’re on show.
- Timetable adjustment: The Court placed two extra short (5-10 minute) breaks during the morning and afternoon session, to help programme to overcome any necessary issues which may arise. There are of course variable issues which may arise for different people in home environments and this was a pragmatic adjustment, suggested by the Court of its own initiative.
- Headphones: I moved to wearing mine as one of the LJs was wearing them. The audio was much better on it, and it cut out street noise – one person’s audio had some (street) background noise, but nothing that impeded the hearing.