Coronavirus lockdown may spur courts system changes – solicitor

Restrictions could be ’catalyst’ for overdue reforms, as first remote hearing takes place

The coronavirus lockdown could serve as a catalyst for the introduction of long-overdue reforms in the court system, according to one of the State’s top personal injury solicitors.

Cian O'Carroll, the solicitor who acted for Vicky Phelan, Ruth Morrissey and other women in their actions alleging negligence in the CervicalCheck screening programme, said he believes the lockdown is helping the courts system overcome an "inertia" that has existed in relation to change.

“This is serving as a catalyst for changes that have been sought by the Chief Justice [Frank Clarke] for a long time,” he said.

Mr O'Carroll is acting in the first remote hearing to be held in the High Court since the coronavirus lockdown began.


Mr O’Carroll is acting for Siobhán Freeney, Clonattin, Gorey, who is suing the HSE over an alleged misreading of a BreastCheck test.

All the evidence in the case was heard prior to the lockdown but remote hearings were held on Monday and Tuesday to allow for oral submissions.

When The Irish Times visited court 29 in the Four Courts on Tuesday, a legal submission was being made by Patrick Treacy SC, for Ms Freeney, by way of video link from Mr O’Carroll’s offices in Cashel, Co Tipperary.

Present in the courtroom were Ms Justice Niamh Hyland, the court registrar, a judge's assistant (wearing a face mask), a technical assistant, and Jeremy Maher SC, also for Ms Freeney.

Neither barrister was wearing barristers’ robes and Ms Justice Hyland was not wearing judge’s robes.

Remote hearings

The Courts Service began holding remote sittings of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court earlier this month. On Thursday remote hearings were held by the Circuit Civil Court in a number of personal injury cases involving children.

A spokesman said that as the technology and other matters were tested, more extensive use of remote hearings would be rolled out.

Mr O’Carroll said the Freeney case was working “really well”. He had a senior and a junior counsel sitting in his Cashel offices, and Ms Freeney was watching from her home.

He understood that the defendant’s solicitors, Comyn Kelleher Tobin, were taking part from their offices in Cork, and at least one of the defendant’s barristers was taking part from his home.

He pointed out that a number of cases he had been involved with over recent years had heard evidence remotely from experts based outside the State.

The Freeney case had heard expert testimony from Australia prior to the lockdown. “There’s really no difference,” he said.

He is acting in two cases that are scheduled to go ahead in May because the health of the plaintiffs requires that they be heard urgently.

One of the cases may last as long as six weeks, and the other could last as long as three weeks.

“The prospect of the cases being heard remotely does not make me nervous,” he said. He was “very comfortable” with how the Freeney case had gone.

He said it had not been decided yet if the plaintiffs in the cases in May would give evidence from the witness box or by remote link.

His chief concern was that there was no reduction in the quality of the plaintiff’s ability to communicate with the court. Other than that, giving evidence remotely could help ease a plaintiff’s anxiety.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent