In recent years, the judicial system has grappled with a need to preserve its renowned and traditional system, whilst balancing the mounting pressure from society to keep up with the times and advance technologically.

With Covid-19 putting pressure on the judicial system to keep courts open, what steps have been undertaken so far and what are the challenges our system might face?

The story so far

In a 2015 government review, a report was released stipulating that changes needed to be made to modernise the courts and the digitisation of trials. Some of these developments have been implemented over the past four years, albeit slowly.

Courts have become more familiar with processes for digitalising evidence, electronic filing, and online plea submissions. In exceptional circumstances, virtual cross examinations have been permitted.

Covid-19 – An accelerator for change

Unprecedented times can be a huge motivator for change; which is why the past few weeks have led to a rapid surge in the digitisation of systems. As companies around the world move to working online due to Covid-19, the question of whether the courts can stay open in an online format has been widely debated.

On the 19th March the Lord Chief Justice announced that civil and family courts are to take place via video, and that ‘any legal impediments will be dealt with.’ The first fully ‘virtual’ hearings are now being undertaken – whereby judges, practitioners, and witnesses attend court not in person, but via video link.

On the 24th of March, Fowler v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs made history as the first Supreme Court case to be held entirely virtually.

The industry responds

These rapid changes to judgements have left lawyers scrambling to adapt quickly to the new digitised formats. Firms and chambers have already started to publish guidelines on how they will approach fully virtual trials whilst social distancing restrictions are in place.

Although temporary, these changes may alter the status quo for allowing proceedings to be conducted online. In the future, and beyond the Covid-19 crisis, there could be additional benefits, such as the cost effectiveness of video, or in cases where it is damaging for parties to meet in person. Digital proceedings may allow for a more tailored and accessible justice system overall.

Perhaps Covid-19 has been the catalyst needed for courts to make changes. However, it remains to be seen whether the temporary virtual judicial system will be extended after the Covid-19 crisis is over, and beyond.