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Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on tribunal hearings

The Legal Education Foundation (LEF) has today published a report entitled Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on tribunal hearings: the experience of tribunal judges.

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the introduction of social distancing measures, the tribunals rapidly adapted to using telephone and video hearings. In light of this significant change the former Senior President of Tribunals Sir Ernest Ryder commissioned the LEF to undertake a survey of all tribunal judicial office holders who had sat on remote hearings in the tribunals between March 19 2020 and July 31 2020. The survey ran for 5 weeks and more than 1500 tribunal judicial office holders responded. The report published today provides an analysis of these responses.

The Senior President of Tribunals, Sir Keith Lindblom said in response to the report: “As we consider how best to go forward in the tribunals when the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, we must look back at what has worked well and what has not. With this in mind, I am grateful for the work that the LEF have put into the survey and the report on its findings.

“During the pandemic a balance has had to be struck between conducting remote hearings and adjourning until a hearing can be held in-person. In many cases, although a face-to-face hearing would have been the ideal, the unavoidable delay has made it inevitable that the interests of justice require a hearing to be held by remote means. Decisions on the most appropriate form of hearing in the circumstances have had to be made, keeping in mind the overriding objective of dealing with cases fairly and justly.

“The speedy adoption of new technology and new practices to facilitate this has not been without its challenges. The report touches on some of the difficulties experienced by judicial office holders in the infancy of remote hearings, and the need to be conscious of the “digital poverty” that may prevent access to a remote hearing. Though telephone and video hearings have helped us maintain access to justice in this extremely testing time, we must acknowledge that for many people and in many cases they are not going to provide the best form of hearing we can offer.

“However, we should not underestimate the success the tribunals have achieved in the last 15 months. We have maintained access to justice, and the delivery of justice, throughout the pandemic, and much tribunals business has been conducted remotely in an effective way. In-person hearings will continue to have their place within the justice system, but there will be some proceedings in which a remote hearing is appropriate and may also provide swifter or easier access to justice.

“Many of the initiatives undertaken in the tribunals after the closing of the survey have unquestionably improved the experience of remote hearings for both judicial office holders and tribunal users. I am greatly encouraged when I see all the work that has been done by the tribunals since July 2020 to make remote hearings more accessible and effective. However, the survey and its findings still hold a great deal of value for us when we are considering how we can improve even more.”

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