Britain's courts lurch towards Skype and conference calls for trials as COVID-19 distancing kicks in

Coronavirus forces judges to join the 21st century more or less overnight


Britain's courts have declared they will start holding trials and hearings through video calling – although they appear rather ill-equipped for doing so.

As the UK struggles to get to grips with government advice to go home, stay home and only leave those four walls for truly essential journeys, Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service has told lawyers and judges that they need to starting using Skype instead of trudging into cramped and dirty court buildings.

In a statement, the MoJ said: "We have put in place arrangements to use telephone, video and other technology to continue as many hearings as possible remotely. We will make best possible use of the equipment currently available; and are working nonstop to update and add to that."

wifi

£1bn Brit court digitisation scheme would be great ... if Wi-Fi situation wasn't 'wholly inadequate'

READ MORE

The coronavirus outbreak has sped up HMCTS's existing and controversial £1.2bn plans to replace criminal trials with video conference calls. Those plans have been delayed amid the usual public sector overspending and inefficiencies, with MPs criticising what little progress has been made so far in a report published in November.

HMCTS currently has three main video conferencing systems for courtroom use: the Justice Video Service, which was a secure(ish) system intended to be used between fixed endpoints such as prisons and Crown courts; BT Meet Me, its approved audio conferencing system; and Skype for Business, which is intended to be used by judges on their HMCTS-issue laptops.

"To give us more quick and flexible capacity, we have also activated Skype for Business on all staff and judicial laptops,” said HMCTS’ online guidance. “This change took effect today (18 March) and work is underway to train staff and judges as quickly as possible, as well as testing the technology to ensure it works for users. We expect to start using this at scale very soon.”

However, conference calls present a problem for the open justice principle, the century-old notion that anyone can walk in off the street to sit in a courtroom's public gallery and watch justice taking place. The court service would only say: "Public galleries in court rooms will remain open to public access, and dedicated press seats will continue to allow journalists to report on hearings."

Ian Murray of the Society of Editors, representing national newspaper editors, warned: "Where possible, the media should be enabled to listen remotely and HMCTS should continue to extend the use of telephone, video and other technology to maintain access."

All new jury trials have been halted on the order of the Lord Chief Justice, the top judge of England and Wales, while it looks likely that civil courts will shift to video and phone hearings instead of assembling in county courts and the High Court's two main London buildings.

As a sign of how far standards are already slipping in Britain's highly small-c conservative courts thanks to video tech, Lord Justice Fulford, vice-president of the Court of Appeal's criminal division, said in a statement to barristers: "Advocates linking remotely need not 'rise' when the court assembles etc."

The Register will be test-driving some of the new open justice measures for the press in two cases of interest due to be heard over the next 10 days.

Meanwhile, across the pond, US federal judges all over the country are having to balance "access to justice with public health concerns as COVID-19 spreads," Law360 reports. It opined that the "caseload crisis could outlive the pandemic." US district judge Denise Page Booth, chief judge of the Eastern District of Michigan, told the legal newswire: "This is just an extraordinary time... When Hurricane Katrina hit, for example, we could move criminals to other jurisdictions. We don't have that [now]. This is pervasive across our whole country." ®

Similar topics

Narrower topics


Other stories you might like

  • Experts: AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law
    Plus: Police release deepfake of murdered teen in cold case, and more

    In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

    Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

    "If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge," they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. "Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions."

    Continue reading
  • Declassified and released: More secret files on US govt's emergency doomsday powers
    Nuke incoming? Quick break out the plans for rationing, censorship, property seizures, and more

    More papers describing the orders and messages the US President can issue in the event of apocalyptic crises, such as a devastating nuclear attack, have been declassified and released for all to see.

    These government files are part of a larger collection of records that discuss the nature, reach, and use of secret Presidential Emergency Action Documents: these are executive orders, announcements, and statements to Congress that are all ready to sign and send out as soon as a doomsday scenario occurs. PEADs are supposed to give America's commander-in-chief immediate extraordinary powers to overcome extraordinary events.

    PEADs have never been declassified or revealed before. They remain hush-hush, and their exact details are not publicly known.

    Continue reading
  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022