The author of this post is Aygun Mammadzada, PhD Researcher at the Institute of Maritime Law of the University of Southampton. This is the fifth in a series of posts aimed to explore the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the phenomena of mobility and exchange that form the constituent elements of private international law, and to discuss the responses that private international law rules provide to the challenges posed by the crisis itself (see the previous contributions by Giovanni Chiapponi, Matthias Lehmann, Tomaso Ferando and Caterina Benini). The EAPIL blog welcomes further contributions on these topics, either in the form of comments to the published posts or in the form of guest posts. Those interested in proposing a guest post for publication are encouraged to contact the blog’s editorial team at email@example.com.
Beyond triggering global health crisis, the extremely rapid growth of COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated significant disruptions for global order, as well as brought drastic effects on international commerce and trade. Interruptions in business transactions have become inevitable due to challenges in meeting contractual obligations, terminations and reliance on frustration or force majeure clauses. All these have given rise to considerable cross-border disputes and necessitated reasonable case management strategies.
Like other states the UK government has also taken several steps for fighting the spread of coronavirus and among other legislative measures recently adopted the Coronavirus Act 2020. The Act justifies giving extraordinary powers to the government in a broad spectrum of areas including the work of the courts and tribunals for navigating uncertainties and minimising potential risks for the judiciary. In the light of substantial significance of access to fair trial and administration of justice amid increasing coronavirus-related claims this post focusses on the implications of the outbreak for civil proceedings. While English courts would maintain ongoing or potential cases parties should expect the recent changes in procedural law and adapt new practices regarding filing the documents and attending the hearings.
Emergency Legislative Measures
On 19 March 2020, Lord Chief Justice delivered a message to the Civil and Family Courts about continuation of their work as a vital public service with a particular note that this would not be ‘business as usual’. Following the nationwide lockdown that was officially declared across the UK on 23 March 2020 the Coronavirus Bill received Royal Assent on 25 March 2020 and became a Parliamentary Act. The key provisions affecting judicial proceedings are laid down in Sections 53-57 on expansion of video and audio technology by criminal and magistrates’ courts and public participation in live civil as well as criminal proceedings. As the Department of Health and Social Care has addressed these measures aim at keeping the courts open to the public, continuation of the proceedings without the need for the participants to attend in person and refraining delays in the administration of justice.
On the same day the HMCTS published an operational summary on avoiding physical hearings and arranging remote trials wherever possible, introduction of social distancing measures in courts and tribunals upon continuation of the ongoing proceedings. Since then there has been a daily summary of HMCTS operational position provided during the pandemic. With the purpose of consolidating the work of courts and tribunals into fewer buildings since 30 March 2020 there have been priority courts and tribunal buildings open to the public for essential face-to-face hearings, some staffed courts without being open to the public and temporarily suspended courts. The work of the courts and tribunals has been prioritised and divided into categories.
To further promote the use of technology by judiciary several pandemic-related updates were made to the Civil Procedure Rules. Practice Direction 51Y promotes audio and video hearings and open justice. It differentiates private hearings which can be recorded and accessed only in a manner directed by the court and public trials which are accessible by public and media representatives. It further states that the Direction ceases to have effect on the date on which the Coronavirus Act 2020 ceases to have effect according to Section 75 of that Act. Indeed, Section 89 determines the expiry date as the end of the 2 years’ period beginning with the day on which it is passed provided no alteration is made in this regard. Expecting audio and video hearings will still remain part of the procedure post-pandemic similar rules should be provided.
Practice Directions 51Z and 51ZA related to stay of possession proceedings and extension of time limits have been inserted into the CPR. Aiming at delaying possession proceedings, PD 51Z provides that they are stayed for a period of 90 days from 27 March 2020. The rules will cease to apply on 30 October 2020 which might not be reasonable taking into account the start date of the stay and its duration. If the rules apply only to those possession proceedings that have already been brought under CPR Part 55 and seeking to enforce an order for possession, would it be reasonable to set the expiry date of the PD as 30 October 2020? Put differently would the rules cover those claims that are brought between 27 March 2020 and 30 October 2020? Presumably yes, in spite of the current text of the direction lacks a clear indication.
PD 51ZA on the other hand enables the parties to agree an extension up to 56 days without formally notifying the court (rather than the current 28 days). Given that it has been agreed by the court any extension of more than 56 days is also possible. Similar to PD 51Z this Direction also ceases to have effect on 30 October 2020. Even if the Coronavirus Act is still in force for the initially determined two years’ period any extension between 30 October 2020 and 25 March 2022 would not be permitted which might bring controversies.
It should be emphasized that remote hearings and use of technology at trial is not entirely novel. Long before the pandemic and emergency act, English judges have already had wide discretion to hold the hearings and receive evidence by phone or other means of direct oral communication in civil proceedings. Video conferencing and telephone hearings in civil proceedings were introduced by the Access to Justice Act 1999 on the basis of Lord Woolf’s report reviewing civil justice system and discretionary powers of the judges to provide flexible, effective, less costly and less time-consuming litigation. Section 3.1(2) of the CPR determines case management powers of the judges and relevant procedure for telephone hearings and video conferencing is presented in Sections 6 and 7 of Practice Direction 23. The CPR also contains judicial guidance on the use of video conferencing in the civil courts (Annex 3 to the Practice Direction 29.1, which was referred by Barling J in Haider v Syed  EWHC 4079 (Ch)).
It is also worth to recall Practice Direction 51V here which has established “the Video Hearings Pilot Scheme” running between 2 March 2020 and 30 November 2020. Regardless of its limited application only to the procedure setting aside default judgments by the court via an internet-enabled video link (“a video hearing”), together with the outcomes of the recent changes and gained experience they can contribute building a solid basis and practice for future proceedings.
Thus, notwithstanding familiarity with the use of technology in civil proceedings prior to the pandemic and Coronavirus Act, it was applied only to partial extent in relation to the receipt of the evidence from witnesses abroad and in person hearings have been encouraged as a traditional mode of conduct. Upon a sudden reversal of the circumstances face-to-face hearings are neither safe nor practically possible which endorses fully remote hearings. In his message on 19 March, Lord Chief Justice delivered that the procedural rules have already enabled flexible use of the telephone and video hearings by the civil and family courts, however, there might still be legal impediments. Therefore, the HMCTS is expanding availability of diverse technological means including phones, video facilities and Skype. As of the latest updates, besides Skype, Cloud Video Platform (CVP) and BT MeetMe have started to be used in some civil and family hearings.
In response to the COVID-19, the English Commercial Court had its very first fully remote hearing in the case National Bank of Kazakhstan the Republic of Kazakhstan v The Bank of New York Mellon SA/NV London & Ors  EWHC 916 (Comm) on 19 March 2020. The virtual trial involving participants and witnesses from different jurisdictions lasted for four days, publicly accessible livestreaming and daily transcripts were provided in line with the legislation. Mr Justice Teare confirmed that the default position is to avoid adjournments where it is possible and in this regard parties’ cooperation and flexibility are extremely valuable.
As stated, “The courts exist to resolve disputes and, as I noted this morning, the guidance given by the Lord Chief Justice is very clear. The default position now, in all jurisdictions, must be that hearings should be conducted with one, more than one, or all participants attending remotely…” Such a policy aims at prevention of uncertainties arising out of the cases adjourned together with the filed ones which would have been waiting for the trials and getting hardly manageable.
The same approach was followed by the High Court in the case Re One Blackfriars Ltd, Hyde v. Nygate  EWHC 845(Ch) where Mr John Kimbell QC refused the application of the claimants to adjourn, instead ordered the parties to prepare for trial. As commented, “The message is that as many hearings as possible should continue and they should do so remotely as long as that can be done safely”.
Impacts on the Procedural Landscape
Advantages of technological development are evident owing to cost-effectiveness and time friendliness of the remote hearings. It not only enables participation of the parties or witnesses who are not able to travel within or outside places of their residence but also avoids delays and unnecessary costs except those resulting from the use of technology.
Nevertheless, there are still many issues that might arise and become hurdles for the operation of the proceedings. One issue is related to the fact that not everybody would be able to apply software and cope with the technological means. Although different guidance notes on how to join telephone and video hearings have been provided this does not prevent issues arising from impossibility of using technology by some users due to their unawareness, incapacities or physical conditions. That necessitates sensitivity and presumably creativity for seeking further options. Mr Justice MacDonald highlighted the “Press Here Stupid” guidance as known in the IT circles and asserted that, besides the parties the judiciary also contains a cohort of judges who may not use the software or lack necessary equipment for the operation of a remote hearing.
The HMCTS has provided a local helpline for technical support to join an audio or video hearing. In this regard probably the SIAC or LMAA experience could also be applied and trainings of the remote technology specialists and staff could be designated.
Unpresented parties such as homeless, chaotic due to alcohol or drug use or having mental health issues may also have similar difficulties to attend proceedings remotely by video or telephone. Likewise, not all the participants might have suitable facilities, hard or software utilities.
Another issue arising out of the remote hearings is related to the potential risks for privacy of the parties, as well as judges. The Protocol dated to 20 March 2020 (slightly revised on 26 March 2020) regarding remote hearings considered the communication platforms as non-exhaustive which would enable parties and the court to negotiate in this regard. Yet, confidentiality and privacy of the hearings remain under the risk of detriment. Likewise, backlogs, loss of network and cut-offs in connection are irresistible obstacles for the process. These necessitate extra expenses on technology platform licencing, data protection and more effective equipments for remote hearings.
Different jurisdictions might have varying approaches towards the matter. Section 53 the Coronavirus Act 2020 determines that recording a broadcast from the court or transmission of the proceeding materials by the participants of the live hearings shall count for an offence. By Schedule 25, the Act further inserted special provisions on the use of live video or audio links, public participation and offences of recording to the Courts Act 2003 (Section 85A-85D) and Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (Section 29ZA-29ZD).
As it had already been presented in section 32 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, private hearings shall be recorded in a manner directed by the court and the court may decide the hearing to be broadcasted and recorded in a wholly audio or video manner. The recordings might be accessed by the application of any person with the consent of the court, otherwise making or attempting to make any unauthorised recording or transmission of an image or sound during in relation to the broadcast might bring an offence of a person. Except making or use of sound recordings for purposes of official transcripts of proceedings, such unauthorised recordings might bring a contempt of a court in accordance with Section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
Regardless of these provisions nothing can guarantee that there will not be any unauthorized recording of the parties or judges or social media posts. Relevant to this, copyright status of the live stream is not entirely clear. This was also raised in National Bank of Kazakhstan case and can be found in the transcript of the second day of the remote hearings. Presumably the court owns copyright since any operation regarding the recordings or streaming needs to get authorization by that court. It would be necessary to get parties’ consent prior to the actual hearings potentially by a particular protocol while filing documents electronically.
Some Thoughts on the Future Perspective
The new way of the hearings will hardly remove the traditional charisma of the courts and in person trials. On the other hand, remote hearings might hardly be possible in complex cases containing mass documentations, third parties and cross-examination of many witnesses. Still, digitisation will presumably continue even after the crisis ends.
In this regard, encompassing actions and a solid strategy are crucial for fixing the discussed problems and achieving constant benefits of technology. Even though implementation of a new initiative would most probably take longer amid timely urgency of the matter lessons could be learned from the status quo as a testing stage, a reasonable action plan could be established and applied post-crisis to achieve long-term effectiveness.
The intense use of technology at trials will advance the already existing fundamental principle of open justice in judiciary even after the crisis. While taking new initiatives judiciary might consider benefits that have already been offered by the ODR procedures for facilitating settlement and resolution of the disputes. Besides creative use of technology, cooperation of the parties with the court and compromise to narrow the disputes would be encouraged.
Along with the legislative measures taken within the borders, a global mechanism providing guidelines on remote hearings and accessible by the states would be useful for certainty and uniform standards at an international level. In this regard, the arbitration community (e.g. ICC, SIAC, ICSID) has been quite rapid in drafting case management updates and guidance documents for minimizing the impact of the COVID-19.
Apart from coronavirus guidelines prepared by various arbitration organizations (e.g. ICC, SIAC), another step in this regard has been the recent Seoul Protocol on Video Conferencing in International Arbitration achieved by Korean Commercial Arbitration Board (KCAB). While looking for innovations particular attention should be placed on the European practice. Videoconferencing has been a widely used tool in Europe both at national and regional levels on the basis of different legal frameworks including the EU regulations and protocols. “Videoconferencing” project has become an integral part of the European e-Justice action plan and the Council and Commission regularly collect and publish good practice and examples of the Member States. These might be helpful while preparing a long-term action plan notwithstanding withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union.
Last but not least, the quote of the ancient Greek poet, Euripides is worth to recall here: “Nothing has more strength than dire necessity”. Although the pandemic has brought enormous impacts on the justice systems and resulted in significant uncertainties in the proceedings every cloud has a silver lining. As many others the UK government has also taken serious measures to combat the crisis and reduce its negative effects on judiciary. However, numerous challenges at the testing stage have been eye-openers for the government to gain more insight of the national, regional or international systems, generate more innovative and creative solutions and develop a strategic action plan for the advanced use of technology at trials. These will most likely lead to inevitable revisions of the CPR rules and related statutes in the near future.