The Irish Times view on courts in the pandemic: going digital – at last

If digitalisation can prod the legal profession towards more efficient practices that can help to reduce costs for the public, so much the better

More than most arms of the State, the courts themselves have been transformed by the pandemic. Photograph:  Alan Betson

More than most arms of the State, the courts themselves have been transformed by the pandemic. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The courts offer a snapshot of a changing society, capturing the private turmoil that can flow from larger social trends. That has been especially clear over the past year, as the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on people’s lives and brought parts of the country to a standstill for months on end. The annual report of the Courts Service for 2020 confirms a sharp reduction in the number of cases heard by courts across the State, with new cases falling from 232,958 in 2019 to 162,980 last year. Criminal cases were down but the more significant decline was on the civil side, notably in areas such as property and debt-recovery.

In some categories of court business actually increased. Cases in areas such as repossession, employment, divorce and serious crime were all up. The statistics tend to confirm the reports of support groups that domestic violence worsened in a year of extended lockdowns. There was a 10 per cent increase in applications for safety orders, and an 8 per cent rise in applications for protection orders. That’s an alarming trend.

More than most arms of the State, the courts themselves have been transformed by the pandemic. While some types of cases could be delayed, most could not. Some 2,411 remote court sessions took place, and prisoners availed of 13,326 remote links from prisons to the courts. For a sector that has been painfully slow to adapt to digital technologies, this is a minor revolution. And while some courts – the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal – were able more easily to conduct their business remotely, public health restrictions posed bigger problems elsewhere, in particular where witness evidence was required. It’s a credit to the Court Service that its essential services continued in such difficult conditions.

The challenge now will be to resume all operations safely and to build on the progress made on digitalisation. While some cases need to be held in-person, many routine ones do not. All the better if that can prod the legal profession towards more efficient digital-friendly practices that can help to reduce costs for the public.

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