Christopher Katkowski QC and Kate Olley appeared on behalf of Manchester City Council today in a judicial review claim in relation to the Council’s most expensive ever land purchase. The hearing was of the claimant’s renewed application for permission to challenge a planning permission on two grounds which had been refused on the papers.
In line with the updated guidance issued yesterday (24th March 2020) the Planning Court sitting in Manchester directed that today’s oral permission hearing should be heard remotely, with the claimant convening a Zoom meeting for the judge, Counsel and solicitors on both sides and the claimant herself.
The judge informed the parties in advance of the hearing that he would treat the hearing as taking place in private, but would reserve his judgment and hand down judgment publicly in due course. He asked that junior Counsel be deployed to take a note of the hearing in place of usual court recording facilities.
The hearing convened smoothly, Counsel having conducted a dry run the day before, and the judge repeated his direction pursuant to CPR 39.2(3)(g) that the hearing was being held in private in order to secure the proper administration of justice and to avoid attendance at the court building, as otherwise the hearing could not take place. He also directed under CPR 39.9(2) that Counsel for the Claimant be authorised to make a recording of the hearing, but was careful to emphasise for the benefit of lay clients that no one else was permitted to do so. The Zoom technology used was able in any event to record the proceedings, and the judge proposed for reasons of both “size and aesthetics” it should be done in audio rather than video form.
Having checked that both sides were content with those directions, the hearing proceeded in the usual way, with junior Counsel staying on audio rather than video link to reduce visual clutter.
We felt that the technology served the proceedings very well, and were particularly impressed with the ability to click the ‘share’ button at the bottom of the screen which allows the speaker to choose a document and display that on the screen for all to see at once. This worked remarkably well in allowing everyone in the hearing to focus on the same document together, and overcame the problem of the hard copy of the authorities bundle not having made its way to the judge in advance of the hearing. With a touch screen, it is also possible in this way to zoom into the relevant part of the document. It strikes us that this facility could actually make a hearing feel more inclusive for a lay client, who may possibly in the usual event feel lost at some points when Counsel and the judge are dealing with the finer points of technical documents or passages in the authorities.
There were no glitches, aside from a stray intervening telephone call which was swiftly dealt with, and the judge warning once or twice that he was getting a message that his connection was unstable. He opined that that was probably due to his neighbours getting up and starting to livestream from the internet, but despite this the connection remained throughout the over 2-hour hearing and none of the submissions were lost.
Overall, we considered it to be a very acceptable and workable substitute for an in-person hearing, especially bearing in mind that the only other option would have been to adjourn the proceedings indefinitely. It seems to us a promising way of being able to deal with at least some hearings in what will undoubtedly continue to be a very different world at least in the short to medium term.