COVID-19 and the courts
The curtailment of services amongst each jurisdiction of the courts in Ireland will be well known by now, with new changes taking effect every week.
Developments for most court venues are promising and suggest that the new normal of court service has arrived.
This article outlines the position for each jurisdiction within the civil court system as of the end of May 2020 and sets out some tips for participating in remote hearings.
The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal heard cases via remote video technology for the first time on 20 April 2020. Since then, judgments have been successfully delivered electronically in several matters. Cases have been identified by the Supreme Court as suitable for remote hearing with further consideration being given to cases involving litigants in person. Procedures to facilitate remote hearings have been introduced by a Supreme Court Practice Direction with the aim of streamlining the process as much as possible.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal is continuing to hear and increase the number of appeals being heard remotely. Applications to fix dates for hearings and directions lists, where directions are given to facilitate the hearing of cases in the list, are taking place. Where either side to an appeal agree that a matter can be dealt with remotely and where the Court agrees that such a matter is suitable for remote hearing, the Court of Appeal office will assign a date.
The Court of Appeal callover list has successfully been conducted remotely in recent weeks, with many practitioners experiencing little to no difficulties.
Three courts of the High Court divisions are available for remote hearings daily. Seven other courts have been adapted and are available for physical hearings, however jury actions and cases which require oral testimony are not taking place. The next High Court civil jury call over is scheduled for 15 October 2020 and all parties are advised to check the Courts Service website for updates.
When restrictions were first introduced in response to COVID19, the High Court sat to hear only urgent matters. Since then, the High Court has expanded the list of cases it will hear, and the list is available to view on the Courts Service website. Notably, matters listed before the Master of the High Court have not recommenced, with all such matters remaining adjourned generally.
For the most part, consent Orders in matters which have been adjourned generally with liberty to re-enter can be dealt with without attendance at court, with all parties able to confirm consent by email.
The Judicial Review Ex Parte list will commence from 2 June 2020, with hard copy papers to be filed in advance. To file papers in hard copy, the Central Office must be contacted to make an appointment.
Matters listed in the Chancery 1 List, which were adjourned generally in light of COVID-19, can be dealt with by way of a consent order without the necessity to attend court.
For High Court family law matters, the Court and the Courts Service is mindful of the safety precautions and has directed that matters can, where possible and appropriate, be dealt with remotely. Representatives have been asked to minimize the number of attendees for each party to such proceedings. Papers should be filed with Central Office by appointment in advance of the matter being heard.
The Commercial Court Motion list recommenced remotely on 25 May 2020, with the Bankruptcy list due to recommence on 8 June.
Matters which have been adjourned since March 2020 will be given a date by the Court Office as soon as possible, with consideration given to dealing with matters remotely where possible and appropriate. Adjournments on consent can be sought by email, thereby reducing the number of parties required to be present in court. Where parties are required to attend, they are allocated certain timeslots to attend based on information provided to the Court Office. Where parties agree, they can email the relevant Court Office to arrange for consent adjournments.
The Courts Service is seeking to introduce measures in all courthouses and courtrooms to ensure the safety of all who attend, and a judge will be available to hear all urgent applications.
Urgent District Court matters are being dealt with throughout the country with parties in non-urgent matters asked not to attend until further notice is provided. The list of urgent matters has been expanded to include further areas in criminal, family and child law.
Remote hearings practical tips
There are a number of practical tips parties virtually attending court should bear in mind:
- each side to a matter should precisely identify who will join the virtual hearing
- those joining the virtual hearing should ensure they have adequate internet connectivity
- however, for those who do not have an internet connection, it is possible to dial into the virtual hearing by telephone. Where a telephone dial in is chosen, there should be no background noise for that participant and if possible, the telephone should be muted unless called on by the Court
- where parties have joined the virtual hearing, they should act as if they were present in court. They should keep their phone on silent and not interrupt the Court. To that end, participants should mute their microphone and turn off their camera unless called on by the Court
- Technical difficulties can and do happen. To minimize disruption, participants should refrain from interacting with the device on which they are connected to the virtual Court
- Participants should have a method of communicating with their team while on the call, for example, by text message or by email
Virtual Alternative Dispute Resolution
Several practitioners have adapted their practice to cater for online service, with Virtual Alternative Dispute Resolution showing promise. Pre-hearing conferences are possible now by services such as Zoom or Microsoft teams, as well as by telephone. It is possible for submissions or exchanges to take place electronically, with Counsel, Solicitors and clients capable of participating from their own homes. While some practitioners may prefer the face-to-face benefits of alternative dispute resolution, the current need to maintain social distancing prohibits such meetings. However, with the advancements in technology in every sector, there is no time like the present for parties to seek to resolve their differences with one of the many methods of alternative dispute resolution.