Court of Appeal delays caused by Covid-19 not ‘catastrophic’

With fewer sittings due to lockdown, judges ‘eat into’ list of reserved judgments

The Court of Appeal is the court making most use of remote hearings. Photograph: Dave Meehan

The Court of Appeal is the court making most use of remote hearings. Photograph: Dave Meehan

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There will be some “slippage” in the time it takes for cases to be dealt with by the Court of Appeal arising from the Covid-19 restrictions, but it will not be “catastrophic”, the president of the court has said.

Mr Justice George Birmingham said the judges are using the reduction in sittings caused by the lockdown, to “eat into” the list of reserved judgments that have been pending from the court.

The court was established in 2014 in order to address the length of time it was taking for appeals to be heard, and has been reducing its backlog and the time it takes for an appeal to be heard, over recent times.

Mr Justice Birmingham said the court is to sit over the coming two weeks, when it would usually rise for 10 days for the Whit break.

This will help the court catch up from the two-week period during which there was no court business conducted, at the outset of the Covid-19 restrictions, he told The Irish Times.

The Court of Appeal is the court making most use of remote hearings, and is also open for cases where the parties involved consent to appeals being decided on the basis of paper or electronic submissions. It began hearing remote cases two weeks ago.

Minimal ‘slippage’

“What we are trying to do is keep the slippage to a minimum and I think there are two ways that that has been happening,” he said.

As well as sitting remotely, including during the Whit period, the judges are also busy writing up reserved judgments which are then being published on the website of the Courts Service.

“So people won’t have that hanging over our heads, and when it is possible to get going again, we will get going.”

There were now two three-judge courts sitting most days, but nevertheless the level of court business being conducted was down.

Because there was no witness evidence involved, the court was more suited than others to holding remote hearings.

The court held a number of “mock trials” where the judges and barristers who regularly appear before the court, tested out the available technology. It then proceeded to hear real cases.

“The first one was an appeal against severity of sentence in a case of handling stolen goods. We indicated a willingness to hear a murder conviction but in fact the appellant had a change of heart over the weekend, even though he was spurning the opportunity for an early hearing.”

The court hears both civil and criminal appeals and for the latter it has organised direct video links to prisons so the appellants can watch. There is also a direct link between the prisoner and their solicitor, so that any matters that arise can be discussed.

Remote hearings

Arrangements have also been made so that the victims can dial in and watch the remote hearings.

In civil cases, the parties involved can also watch online, as can accredited journalists who make arrangements beforehand.

“So the Court of Appeal is very much open for business, which is not to say it is, or can really be, business as normal. With the best will in the world, remote hearings are not the same as hearings in a courtroom.”

Mr Justice Birmingham said it was his experience that hearings held remotely involved less spontaneity.

“Hearings in the Court of Appeal involve quite informal exchanges between the advocates and the judges, almost like a conversation. That doesn’t really happen in the same way. Judges have to limit their interventions, and time them, because otherwise you end up with people speaking over each other.”

He said that while the appeal courts may suit remote hearings, this was less so with courts that have to hear evidence from witnesses, and less so again with hearings that required a jury.

“We were keen to be the first out of the traps, because our daily diet lends itself to it,” he said of remote hearings, which began this week at both High Court and Circuit Court also.

After hearing a case remotely, the judges retire to a “separate remote room”, where they discuss the case and decide who will write up the judgment.

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