Many types of court cases not suitable for remote hearings, committee told

‘Imperative’ that physical court rooms are not overlooked, says barrister Mema Byrne

Not everyone owns the technology to access remote hearings or has the capacity to use the required devices, said Mema Byrne. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Not everyone owns the technology to access remote hearings or has the capacity to use the required devices, said Mema Byrne. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Many types of court cases are not suitable for remote hearings which have become common since the start of the pandemic, the Bar of Ireland has said.

In-person hearings are still required for the majority of court cases and it is “imperative” that physical court rooms are not overlooked, barrister and council member Mema Byrne told an Oireachtas justice committee hearing on court facilities.

“While the introduction of remote hearings has greatly assisted stakeholders, there are significant aspects of litigation that are negatively impacted by remote hearings rather than in person hearings and it is the council’s view that in-person hearings are essential for the majority of cases.”

Not everyone owns the technology to access remote hearings or has the capacity to use the required devices, she said.

Remote court hearings are likely to continue into the future, Ms Byrne said. However people must be facilitated in using them, otherwise litigants may effectively be denied access to proceedings.

The Bar handed over a number of submissions from its members on how remote hearings might be improved. One involved the establishment of “pods” in courthouses which could be used by litigants to access remote hearings if they do not have the required technology at home.

Decent broadband should also be available in all court buildings to facilitate these hearings, she said. “Access to courtrooms locally must be facilitated in a manner that can meet the reasonable needs of all citizens.”

The physical infrastructure of courts must be modernised to improve the experiences of users, she said.

“Lack of appropriate conditions significantly increases stress and anxiety which increases volatility and on occasion violence in the course of litigation.”

Dympna Kenny of Victim Support at Court (Vsac) told the committee the facilitates in the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin are of a very high standard and should serve as a “benchmark” for other courts.

She raised the current backlog in court cases and said the current court terms should be reviewed, particularly for August and September when most courts close. Consideration should also be given to holding more Central Criminal Court trials, which deal with rape and murder, outside of Dublin.

Non-court venues should also be examined for use as locations for trials to improve access.

The number of courts equipped with the technology needed to hold remote hearings is set to more than double over the course of this year, the Courts Service told the Committee.

About 40 courts nationwide are equipped with the technology at present but the number is to increase to 104 before the end of the year. There will be a court with the necessary technology in each county.