HMCTS telephone and video hearings during coronavirus outbreak

Guidance on how HMCTS will use telephone and video technology during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Running our courts and tribunals is an essential public service. Audio and video technology has long played a part in the justice system and can now provide particular support during the coronavirus outbreak.

A range of guidance from the senior judiciary encourages the use of telephone and video to support hearings. To support this, we have taken urgent steps to increase the capacity of our existing systems, to introduce new capabilities, and to provide guidance to our staff on organising telephone and video-enabled hearings.

These measures would ordinarily involve extensive testing, training and slow roll-out. Given the current, unprecedented, public health emergency, we are prioritising making these capabilities available now, and will continue to improve how we use them as the weeks progress.

The decision to use telephone and video hearings

The decision as to how a hearing is conducted is a matter for the judge, magistrates or panel, who will determine how best to uphold the interests of justice. In considering the suitability of video/audio, judges will consider issues such as the nature of the matters at stake during the hearing; any issues the use of video/audio technology may present for participants in the hearing, having regard to individuals’ needs; and any issues around public access to or participation in the hearing.

Using existing technology and making new technology available

We are seeking to make the best possible use of existing technology in the courts. This includes the Justice Video Service in the criminal courts, and provision for audio hearings that exists widely in the civil courts. We are also expanding our capacity and working to increase and improve the ways in which audio and video technology can support hearings to take place. This includes:

  • Teleconferencing We have significantly increased the amount of teleconferences we can run using BTMeetMe. Participants will be sent conference call phone numbers, and no specialist equipment is required other than a phone (and any speakers that you may wish to use).

  • Videoconferencing For videoconferencing we have started using Skype for Business on HMCTS and judicial systems. Participants in a hearing do not need Skype for Business to join these videoconferences, however they will need the free Skype meetings app. Each participant will receive instructions and a link to click to join the hearing, as a ‘guest’. Once users click on the link, they should follow the browser’s instructions for installing Skype Meetings App. We recommend doing this as early as possible, to be prepared for your hearing. At the time of the hearing, users go to the Skype Meetings App sign-in page, enter their name, and select “Join”.

Please note, we do not currently support the use of other video conferencing applications. Hearings heard via Skype are accessible to all users.

By early next week we will have increased the capacity of our ‘cloud video platform’ (CVP). This will provide video hearing capability for any courtrooms that have suitable equipment. It can be accessed through any laptop or video device, and can also use bridging links to communicate with fixed endpoints that use the Justice Video Service. Such endpoints are found in courts, prisons and police stations.

Looking ahead, we are expanding the capacity of our fully video hearings solution, which has been used on a small-scale in specified civil, family and tax tribunal hearing types. We want to make sure this bespoke video hearing solution is robust and can handle significant volumes of hearings, as quickly as possible. No bespoke software will be needed to join hearings in a CVP room or for fully video hearings.

These measures are already enabling hearings to go ahead effectively. Examples include a 5-day trial completed over video in the Court of Protection and nearly 500 audio hearings completed.

The rules on using video and audio technology in courts

Audio and video hearings are subject to the relevant jurisdictional rules and practice directions.

New legislation

The Coronavirus Act 2020 expands the availability of video and audio link in court proceedings. This includes:

  • allowing specific civil applications (relating to infectious diseases / coronavirus) in the magistrates’ court to take place by phone or by video, should an individual appeal against restriction of movement due to quarantine measures
  • expanding the availability of video and audio link in various criminal proceedings, including fully video and audio hearings in certain circumstances
  • allowing the public to participate in court and tribunal proceedings through audio and video.

The measures allow a wider range of proceedings to be carried out by video and audio. The judiciary will determine how a hearing is conducted.

Open justice

Open justice is a fundamental principle in our courts and tribunals system, and will continue to be so as we increase the use of audio and video technology. In considering the use of telephony and video technology, the judiciary will have regard to the principles of open justice, as they do now. As now, judges may determine that a hearing should be held in private if this is in the interests of justice. A range of measures will continue to support the principle of open justice:

  • Access to open hearings if/where a public gallery is available, or a third party may join the hearing remotely
  • Transcripts for hearings in those jurisdictions where they are available now. Any party or interested person is able request a transcript. Judges may direct that the transcript be made available at public expense where appropriate
  • With the permission of the judge, an audio recording of a hearing can be made available to be listened to in a court building
  • With the permission of the judge, in jurisdictions where this is already done, the notes of the hearing can be made available on request
  • Publication of the outcome of High Court and Court of Appeal hearings, orders or results
  • Publication of court and tribunals lists, in most instance online
  • Access to hearings and information to accredited media, such as the provision of listing and results information in Magistrates’ Courts via email

Requests from the media and others to observe a hearing remotely should be made to the court in advance to allow for inclusion during the hearing set-up.

Media access to proceedings

We are committed to promoting media access to the work of courts and tribunals.

For physical hearings, even when many of the participants join remotely, accredited media will continue to have access to dedicated press seats as reflected in current HMCTS media guidance although current arrangements will follow wider public health advice relating to social distancing.

Where accredited journalists wish to report on proceedings remotely then they should put in a request to the relevant court as set out above. There have been some early examples where courts have enabled the media to have remote telephone and video access to hearings.

Court and tribunal users

Audio and video hearings provide an additional channel for conducting a hearing and should be as accessible as possible. But they may not be suitable for everyone.

Please tell the court or tribunal if there are any circumstances about yourself or your case which may affect or impair your ability to participate effectively in an audio or video hearing. This will inform the judiciary’s decision.

Reasonable adjustments will be made.

We will keep you notified as to how your hearing is to take place, and contact you in advance with information about what you need to do. To join by audio or video, you will need a phone or a computer with internet access, a webcam and microphone. Users will need a quiet space where they will not be disturbed during the hearing.

We are grateful to all those working in, and using courts and tribunals, as we modify our ways of working. Using such technology may be new for some court and tribunal users and we will aim to support you in this. Please carefully read and follow the guidance on how to connect; but if you need assistance find the relevant court or tribunal in relation to your hearing.

Joining an audio or video hearing

Where a hearing is to take place via teleconference using BT MeetMe, all parties will receive a notice of hearing containing joining instructions. This includes a request to provide the court with a preferred contact number by which they can join the hearing. On the day of the hearing, all parties should be in a private, quiet area where they can’t be overheard and should be ready to accept a call at the time of their hearing. A member of HMCTS staff will facilitate the joining of all parties to the hearing and will ensure it is recorded and stored appropriately.

We are expanding the use of the BTMeetMe service to enable hearings that would usually be held in a physical court building. The cost of this service is covered by HMCTS and as such participants in these hearings will incur no costs.

Where a hearing is to take place by video, you will need:

  • a computer, tablet or suitable phone with access to the internet, a web browser, camera, microphone (you can use your device’s built-in microphone)
  • a quiet space where you will not be disturbed during your hearing.

You do not need to pay for or set up any specific software now. The court or tribunal will write to you with information about preparing for your hearing, including checking in advance that you will be able to connect. Depending on your computer, you will be able to join the hearing via your web browser or using a web app.

Please read our guide on Joining court hearings by video call or phone (PDF, 371KB, 3 pages)

Oaths and affirmations

An oath is a verbal statement of fact with wording relating to something considered sacred (a Holy Book or Scripture). An affirmation, on the other hand, is a verbal statement of fact without a Holy book or Scripture. You can be required to take an oath or make an affirmation when giving oral evidence or when verifying a written statement of fact. Oaths and affirmations have the same standing in legal terms.

If you are required to take an oath or to make an affirmation as part of a hearing that you are joining remotely, and would like to take an oath using a sacred object, we rely on you providing your own Holy Book or Scripture. You can also, if you wish, take an oath without a sacred object, if you consider it will still be binding on you. You can still choose to make an affirmation rather than take an oath, as you would in a physical courtroom. Regardless of how you choose to make this verbal statement of fact, you will be bound legally to tell the truth.

We are rapidly scaling up our audio and video capabilities to ensure that we continue to provide a service that upholds access to justice. We are working hard to find solutions to problems that haven’t been seen before.

Legally privileged conversations with clients are fundamental to representative justice, and are a necessary part of our justice system. Our bespoke product for fully video hearings, which is subject to testing at the moment, provides for this in the form of private consultations. We are working to scale up this solution, as we are doing with our other capabilities, as soon as possible.

In the meantime, other arrangements will have to be made to facilitate these conversations, such as phone calls to clients.

Published 18 March 2020
Last updated 27 March 2020 + show all updates
  1. Information updated.

  2. Oaths and affirmation section added.

  3. Additional info added.

  4. First published.