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Research • Digital justice system • Completed

Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Tribunals: The Experience of Tribunal Judges

Dr Natalie Byrom, Sarah Beardon  |  31st May 2021

The measures introduced to tackle the spread of COVID-19 resulted in rapid changes to the operation of courts and tribunals across England and Wales. Across the tribunals system, measures were put in place to protect public safety and ensure that tribunals were able to function and hear cases wherever possible. A range of procedural and practical changes were adopted: tribunals were encouraged to triage their caseload and to decide cases “on the papers”, the use of remote hearings was expanded and rules on party compliance with directions were relaxed to take account of the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic.

Taken together, these changes constituted a significant shift in the operation of tribunals. The Senior President of Tribunals and leadership judges were keen to explore the impact of these changes on the experience of the tribunals judiciary, to identify opportunities to refine the processes put in place, and to guide future developments. In order to assist them in this task, they commissioned a survey—this report presents the findings from that exercise.

This report presents the findings of an online survey of judicial office holders. The survey was designed with the support of the Senior President of Tribunals and Chamber Presidents. This survey was distributed via email and was open to all judicial office holders who had participated in hearings between 19 March 2020 and 31 July 2020. 1507 judicial office holders completed the survey in full—only those respondents who completed the survey in full were included in the analysis.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • The introduction of pre-hearing checks to identify vulnerable tribunal users and provide them with appropriate support to participate effectively
  • Urgent action to improve access to papers for judicial office holders and parties
  • Urgent action to review the functionality and stability of Cloud Video Platform and additional design features to be added to the specification for any future platform
  • The recommendation of a minimum threshold for technical performance below which the fairness and efficacy of hearings is threatened to ensure consistency and uphold the rule of law
  • Additional safeguards to support the effective participation of appellants in detained settings
  • Leadership judges should issue guidance recommending the reservation of remote hearings for:
    • short, straightforward hearings concerning points of law
    • hearings not involving live evidence
    • hearings where all parties are represented and joining with their representative
    • hearings where all parties have access to good broadband and adequate technology.
    • Importantly, it is recommended that this guidance should remain in place until independent research exploring the impact of remote hearings on outcomes and perceptions across a representative sample of tribunal users has been conducted
  • Urgent action to review the data already captured by HMCTS on remote hearings and address key data gaps

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