The world has changed dramatically in recent months and in ways which we could have hardly imagined. The family justice system has not escaped those changes. One of the most notable is that many court hearings are now being held remotely. What this means in practice is that clients, solicitors, barristers and judges are logging in, often from home, to participate in a court hearing. The judiciary have published guides about how the remote hearings should run and the expectations on all parties, although each will have its nuances. No doubt many of those involved will be able to share their own experiences, good and bad, but in this post I share my top tips for dealing with some of the practicalities of a remote Financial Dispute Resolution hearing.
- One point of contact: Having one person as the point of contact should mean the hearing runs more smoothly. This should be someone who is able to coordinate their client’s legal team; to make sure they and the client are in the “hearing room” with the judge at the right time and in the “breakout room” when required. Having a separate video connection can often work better than relying on the “breakout room” provided by the judge/court (if one is provided at all). This replicates the room a client and their legal team may use outside of the court in the court building. Any member of the team can be the point of contact, but in my experience it seems to be most effective when it is the barrister or solicitor leading the negotiations.
- Snacks: There may (and should) be regular breaks but these may not be exactly when you need/want them. Like all hearings, a virtual hearing can be tiring and blood sugar levels may drop as the day progresses. There may not necessarily be the same clear lulls in proceedings as there are when the hearing is being heard in person and it is not always obvious when you or your client can grab a coffee or eat a snack. Having a refillable bottle of water on hand helps as do plenty of snacks and a lunch ready to go. At the very least, knowing you’ve made a plan is one fewer thing to have to think about on the day.
- The mute button is there to be used: The only person that should be heard is the person speaking, whether that’s the barrister making their submissions or the judge asking a question. The background noise of someone turning a page or a bin lorry driving past(!) is distracting at best and potentially damaging to your client’s case at worst.
- Dress appropriately: This means make sure you are smart but also comfortable. A remote hearing is still a hearing, so you should dress as you would if you were attending court in person. However, at a remote hearing you may be a lot more static, so make sure your clothes are comfortable to be sitting in all day and that you won’t be too cold or hot. You can probably ditch your formal shoes, but remember that you may have to get up during the hearing so avoid wearing your pyjamas instead of trousers!
- You can be seen: In the usual court set up, generally every person in the court room can be seen, at least by the judge. However, when everyone’s face is condensed onto one screen facial expressions are magnified, and every person in the hearing will see every expression that you make. The other party may make submissions you or your client don't agree with, but try to avoid showing your frustration through facial gestures. It is important to remind your client of this too, especially if they are less familiar with video conferencing.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a break: As I’ve mentioned above, the natural lulls are different in a remote hearing. You will need to be more vocal about needing to take a break, whether that is for getting a coffee, going to the bathroom, discussing matters with your client or because your client needs a rest due to the emotion of the hearing.
It will be interesting to see how the courts and the legal world adapt and utilise technology after the pandemic has passed. However, despite the easing of lockdown restrictions, it seems likely that remote hearings are going to be with us for a long time, and in fact may become a permanent fixture for certain hearings. It is therefore important to get to grips with attending remote hearings sooner rather than later. I hope my tips offer some helpful guidance that I have picked up over the last few months.
By Hebe Thorne