Legal information about how HMCTS will use telephone and video technology during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
If you’ve been asked to join a hearing by telephone or video during the coronavirus outbreak, check this guide on how to join your hearing
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 making the best possible use of existing technology in the courts, including the Justice Video Service in the criminal courts, and provision for audio hearings that exists widely in the civil courts. We have also expanded our capacity and worked to increase and improve the ways in which audio and video technology can support hearings to take place.
We are using a number of solutions to enable hearings to take place. These includes:
- We have significantly increased the number 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).
For video conferencing we have started using Skype for Business on HMCTS and judicial systems. If you have a video hearing coming up, and you want to join using your computer, you will need to download Skype meetings app for your web browser. If you’re joining using your mobile, you’ll need to download the Skype for Business app in your mobile application store. You will receive instructions and a link to click to join the hearing, as a ‘guest’. When you click on the link, you 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, you must go to the Skype Meetings App sign-in page, enter their name, and select “Join”.
We have increased capacity, undertaken testing, and are now introducing our ‘cloud video platform’ (CVP) for hearings. CVP uses Kinly video conferencing software. These videoconferencing rooms can be accessed through any laptop or video device. We can also use bridging links to communicate with fixed endpoints that use the Justice Video Service, in courts, prisons and police stations. See this guidance on joining telephone and video hearings
Please note, HMCTS does not currently support the use of other video conferencing applications and therefore Skype and CVP should be used.
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.
The rules on using video and audio technology in courts
Audio and video hearings are subject to the relevant jurisdictional rules and practice directions.
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.
HMCTS is working to make it possible for the majority of remand cases to be heard by video where this meets the interests of justice, with defendants appearing from police custody suite, prisons and youth custody facilities.
A national cross agency working group for crime has been established whose initial focus has been to take urgent steps to increase the capacity of our existing systems, to introduce new capabilities, and to provide guidance to staff, judiciary and users
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 telephone 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 necessary to secure the proper administration 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. Please contact the court. This is not available for criminal jury trials in the Crown court..
Publication of courts and tribunals lists
HMCTS publishes court and tribunal lists in a number of ways across jurisdictions with free access to members of the public, though registration for some is required.
- Crown Court, County Court and Employment Tribunal hearing lists are published on Courtserve, additionally Crown Courts lists are also published on Xhibit
- Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, Single Justice Procedure and First Tier Tax Tribunal court lists are published on GOV.UK
- Royal Courts of Justice and the Rolls Building daily courts lists are published on Justice.gov website
- Magistrates’ courts lists are not currently published online. Requests should be made by contacting individual courts
- Courts and tribunals buildings which are open display hearing lists in public waiting areas
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. This is not available for criminal jury trials.
Special arrangements are being put in place for criminal jury trials in the Crown court including the use of a second courtroom linked by closed circuit TV to enable the media and others to watch proceedings while maintaining social distancing.
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.
Guide to joining an audio or video hearing
We are increasing the use of BTMeetMe, Skype for Business and Cloud Video Platform (CVP) during the coronavirus outbreak.
These are free to use.
Oaths and affirmations
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.
Communication between legal professionals and clients
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.
It is a fundamental tenet of our justice system that people are able to consult their legal advisers in confidence. That tenet is already recognised in the existing rules for legal visits within prisons and for telephone calls between prisoners and their legal advisers. We are keen to ensure this principal continues to be upheld, and we are working to ensure that arrangements for conducting legal meetings by videoconference are secure, private and afford legal representatives appropriate time to confer with their clients.
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.
Prison to court video links and new video conferencing centres
Established prison to court video links and new video conferencing centres will continue to be the preferred method of business with the courts and legal representatives for offenders in custody, due to limitations on use of phones within prisons.
Cloud Video Platform (CVP) allows parties to connect to a video meeting room from an internet enabled device for a hearing to go ahead. All probation and defence consultations (including those immediately pre- and post-court) will take place by video link while face-to-face legal visits have been suspended.
While we are still working out the details, to ensure defence practitioners/practitioners are seamlessly able to request and book prison to court video links and new video conferencing centres for meetings with their clients, we intend to use the CJSM service. This allows people working in the justice system to send secure booking emails to prisons and the courts.
Video remand hearings (VRH)
Where possible, probation interviews and before and after court consultations should be carried out by audio in the custody suites. Remand hearings will be undertaken by video technology unless the interests of justice cannot be met, when the defendant will be produced to an open court. A new practice direction has been drafted and will soon be issued by the Lord Chief Justice’s office.