By Adam Tanner, 28th October 2020
Over the past seven years I have worked within the justice system and have been an observer as a law student and PhD researcher in several hundred in-person court hearings.
Since the lockdown restrictions commencing in March 2020, there has been a new feel to the justice system in the United Kingdom. The vast majority of hearings have taken place not in a physical courtroom but via telephone or on Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other kinds of remote platforms.
With the recent easing of restrictions, some cases are now once again being heard ‘in-person’ as ‘attended’ hearings, where parties travel to the Court. I went to one of these ‘attended’ hearings on October 12th 2020 at First Avenue House, the administrative headquarters of the Court of Protection in Holborn, London.
It was not like any hearing I have ever attended before.
Due to limitations on the numbers of people who are allowed to attend a hearing at one time – for this court hearing it was just nine – I was placed on a wait list to see if I could be granted access to the hearing.
On the day of the hearing I arrived at First Avenue House and was stopped at the door by security, who asked if I had shown any symptoms of COVID-19 within the last 72 hours. I was then asked which case I was a party to. This caused a slight issue as I was not ‘party’ to any case, but merely an observer. I was, therefore, sent up to reception (after having a socially distanced security search from a metal detector at arm’s length, while facing away) to check myself in with the Court of Protection team. The entire Court building has a huge, maze-like, one-way system of hallways with reminders on the floor every six feet to stay apart. I was asked to sign in and was presented with a copy of the transparency order for the hearing and was then asked to sit in a waiting area, to see if I would be granted access to the hearing. The waiting area had most of its chairs removed, so as to allow for social distancing.
After a short wait I was approached by one of the Counsels in the case who said that due to unforeseen absences of some parties there would definitely be room in the Court for me. While I waited for the hearing to be called on there was not a single, non-HMCT employee to be seen. The Court was a ghost-town, unlike any Court I have ever worked in or visited. Anybody who has ever visited a Court will know that they are usually full of clients, defendants, lawyers and other interested parties. In most Courts people are fighting to find a seat, or somewhere quiet to have a conversation. This was certainly not the case on this day.
The hearing was called on and I took my seat at the back of the court, next to other taped off seats. Counsel for the parties sat two metres apart and signage on each desk advised parties where they could and could not sit, so as to allow for distancing. Upon the arrival of the Judge the first discussion was that of mask wearing. Masks are, of course, mandatory within all HMCTS buildings. District Judge Ellington told parties to do whatever they felt most comfortable with but said that masks should be worn by parties who are not speaking. Similarly, the issue of witnesses was discussed and how the flow of persons coming into and out of the courtroom would be managed with distancing.
I was then addressed by the District Judge and asked if I had read and understood the transparency order given to me. I was also read the standard warning about contempt of court should I not comply with the rules of the order.
The hearing itself was rather stop-start as parties were running late to the Court, meaning we had to leave the courtroom and await their arrival. However, once the hearing was underway it was much like any other in-person hearing. At the end of the 3-hour long hearing Judge Ellington addressed me again to see if I wanted sight of any Court papers and what my reasons for wanting them were. She ordered that counsel provide me with any relevant papers before the hearing came to an end.
If people have never attended a court hearing in person, I believe they should try it when they feel it’s safe for them to do so. See justice in action before your own eyes! I have worked for judges and magistrates in hundreds of cases and it never ceases to be an interesting experience. Although we can gain greater access to the Courts via remote hearings, they are in no way the same. Attended hearings do not succumb to the same technological difficulties which so often befall MS Teams or Zoom hearings.
COVID-19 has, of course, changed the way in which the Court system works and the current COVID-Secure hearings are definitely more intimidating, daunting and less pleasant experiences. Sitting in cold courtrooms in a mask for hours on end is not an enjoyable thing to do. But compared with sitting behind a computer screen, an attended hearing really gives you a different feel of the court, and it’s worth it for the sake of open justice!
Adam Tanner is a PhD researcher in mental capacity law and has contributed previous blogs to this Project (e.g. here). He tweets @AdamrTanner