Experience of Virtual Hearings in the Crown Court

Keith Jones shares his experience of the “new” world of virtual hearings in the Crown Court – brought about by the Coronavirus and the inadequate cleanliness of the criminal courts of England and Wales in 2020.

Yesterday, I was involved in a surreal situation: talking to a Crown Court Judge and my opponents via telephone.  Whilst, the telephone conference system is a well established system in a lot of industries, it is a new thing for us criminal lawyers. It is the arrival of so-called “virtual hearings”.

First impressions are that it doesn’t lend itself to the criminal court very well. It may do in the near future when people are more accustomed to it and with the expansion of livelinks in these unprecedented times, it is something that we will all need to work together on, some of us are better at computers than others!!

So how does it work?
  1. You will receive a phone call to the number you provided.
  2. When you answer you will be prompted by an automated voice to press keys on your phone to confirm your attendance.
  3. You state your name and then you will automatically join the call.  The system will announce to anybody already on the call that you have joined.
  4. Hearing takes place over phone with all parties present.
  5. When you leave or are disconnected it will announce that you have left.

The hearing itself was productive.  A consolidated indictment was proffered, a date fixed for an application to extend custody time limits and a new trial date fixed.  This was not the most complex of hearing but it was not without its problems. Firstly, I never saw or spoke to my client. I don’t even know if he attended court.  My co-defendant’s client was on videolink to the court. He did not get to see or speak to him. This will change soon with the introduction of the confidential video-links to clients.

So what are the practical problems that arise with digital/virtual hearings?

There are a number of different problems but all of them can be overcome with common sense but there may still come a time when a standard operating procedure will need to be invoked.  The efficiency of the hearing is reliant upon the connection between you and other parties and is only a good as the weakest link. In that, if you get disconnected from the call, then everybody has to wait for you to be dialled back in. 

The audio quality may differ depending on the equipment that people use but most will use an iPhone or an android device and should work without a hitch. In the call yesterday, there were times when the Judge sounded distant and muffled but that may be the court microphone as opposed to a connection quality.  I was cut-off twice and the prosecution advocate was cut-off once also. It wasn’t clear whether this was a signal or system issue but these teething problems will iron themselves out eventually.

Others in chambers who have experienced these hearings find that the judge is the only person not clearly audible, in fact.

Some practical tips to assist with the efficiency of virtual hearings.
  1. Treat it like you are sitting in court.  Only speak when it is your turn! It may seem obvious but every word is lost when one party speaks over the other.  Nobody can hear what has been said as the speakers simply merge the audio.
  2. Try to keep submissions succinct. Try and make one point at a time so responses can be heard from others.
  3. When you are not speaking, press mute on your audio….nobody wants to hear you heavy breathing down the mic!  Also, for the same reasons as above, coughing prevents anybody else on the call from hearing what is being said (irrespective of how passive you think your cough is).  Just remember to mute when not talking!
  4. Make sure you have good reception (or even better still, use a landline!)
  5. Try not to use speakerphones – the temptation to be hands free is a great one but not for audio quality.
  6. Make sure you are in a quiet place away from background disruptions.  This won’t always be achievable for some but it will assist in the efficiency of the hearing.
  7. Be polite!

This is just the beginning of the virtual hearings.  With the passing of the Coronavirus Act 2020 there will be new experiences for all.  There are bound to be teething problems until people become used to using it but follow the tips and you’ll be off to a good start.  Order and patience is all that is needed.