The Courts Service, like many other public amenities, has been adversely affected by the Covid-19 crisis and is experiencing unprecedented difficulties in the operation of its services and the administration of justice. With the exception of urgent criminal and family law cases, very few proceedings have been determined by the courts in recent weeks.
In an attempt to restore some level of progress to proceedings the Chief Justice, Mr. Frank Clarke recently announced the introduction of virtual court hearings. This system of remote hearings is already in operation for some criminal appearances and is used by the prison service and Gardaí. As and from the 20th of April this virtual courtroom facility was extended to civil cases also. Both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal heard matters in individual cases with judges, practitioners and the parties to the proceedings appearing via video from remote locations. The cases were displayed on video screens in largely empty courts for members of the media present. Not only will this new facility reduce the significant backlog of cases which exists from the closure of the Courts but it will also reduce pressure on parties to unwillingly settle disputes due to the undetermined waiting time to have the matter resolved by a judge.
Chief Justice Clarke stated that a “considerable amount of work has been done” on facilitating remote hearings “which nonetheless comply with the constitutional obligation that justice be administered in public”. Mock trials were conducted in the past few weeks to test the new system and it is expected that the Courts will soon issue guidance in relation to the operation of the new system in each court jurisdiction.
In a statement delivered in court via remote link, Chief Justice Clarke confirmed that “Remote hearings will be suitable for some types of proceedings in the High Court and a limited number of cases in the District and Circuit Courts. The Court Presidents and the Courts Service are exploring ways in which to increase the number of cases which can be dealt with in physical hearings. It must also be acknowledged that many urgent cases throughout the Country have been handled by dedicated judges and staff often working in difficult conditions. The District Court in particular has, because of its caseload of often urgent criminal and family hearings, had to bear a particular load.”
A similar approach will be required in respect of employment cases before the Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”) and the Labour Court. The Law Society’s Employment & Equality Committee is of the view that a significant amount of cases before the WRC and the Labour Court could also be heard using the technology which the Courts Service are availing of. The Law Society issued a letter to both the Registrar of the Labour Court and the Director of the WRC proposing that remote hearings should be utilised for employment disputes where all parties consent to using applications such as Skype or Zoom until a more formal arrangement can be set up. Such a proposal would serve the interests of justice when compared to the alternative to postponing hearings indefinitely, leaving employees and employers facing uncertainty. The Mental Health Commission is also conducting Tribunals by video-conference and it should be possible for the WRC and the Labour Court to adjudicate on questions of employment rights remotely.
It is reassuring to see that the Courts Service are adapting to the current difficulties and that measures are being introduced to ensure that the administration of justice continues. It is hoped that the WRC and the Labour Court will also avail of these new technologies to provide virtual hearings for use in employment related disputes.
J.W. O’Donovan is monitoring developments in this area in order to keep its clients aware of the evolving situation. Should you have any queries as to the effect of the above, please email Ciara Lehane, Associate Solicitor at firstname.lastname@example.org.