Against a backdrop of further planned countrywide court closures and the continued rise in the number of Litigants in Person in the family courts, outgoing President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby believes that those that have been through the court system should now be asked whether they would rather have used different means of attending their hearings, rather than appearing in person. The President stated, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of people would be saying actually … I’d rather do it by Skype”
This is a legitimate concern. But what are the consequences, both good and bad, of attending your court hearing through means such as Skype?
The concerns appear to stem from the lack of access to justice that the current system offers a great number of people. With the number of courts in England and Wales down from 460 to 350 and further closures planned, physical access to your ‘local’ court is rapidly becoming more inconvenient, time consuming and costly, especially to those who live in rural areas with little or no access to public transport. Allowing a litigant to sit in their lounge or set up in the office and attend their ‘hearing’ via Skype would alleviate this substantial risk of physical access to justice.
Another consideration worth noting is that using Skype to attend hearings may remove or lessen the fear and intimidation that can accompany a hearing in court, especially for those who have no prior experience of the court room setting. There would be no unsavoury meetings between fractious parties, as they could feel safe and secure in the privacy of their own home. Using Skype may also free up more court time, rooms and facilities as the hearing need not take place within the confines of the existing court buildings.
The main difficulty in implementing this method comes in the form of the technology itself. We are all more than aware of the tendency of our technology to let us down at the most crucial of times, especially the internet and our computers. On the perfect day, the system would work without a hitch allowing for a fast, cheap and convenient alternative to attending court in person. However, presently, it is unclear how easily the perfect system could be implemented. It has been well documented the many difficulties that have been faced when employing new technologies into the existing court system.
The use of Skype may also call into question the access to justice for some. Not only would the use of Skype require a computer with a webcam and access to the internet, but would also require the parties to be able to use the software confidently. Whilst it would appear the suggestion might be to offer Skype as an alternative, at the discretion of the parties, there may be many that would prefer to use the software but yet be unable to do so.
The jury may take a while to return their verdict on the Skype hearing alternative, especially if they’re still waiting for the Wi-Fi router to reboot…