Recently, my son had to pick a speech from one of Shakespeare’s works to recite to his class. He settled on the famous speech by Macbeth : “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …….”
This speech frequently comes to mind in our current times. Tomorrow seems the same as today and yesterday. I see people walking anti-clockwise round the park, just to do something different from the day before.
Yet, I can’t help but see the positives. I see people whom I have never seen before out for a walk or cycle. Alcohol consumption may have increased, but so too have people’s fresh air and exercise. Homes and gardens are well kempt as people tend to things today that they kept putting off until tomorrow.
In my work life I also see changes for the better. As a civil litigator, I am used to the concept of time: the time it takes to travel to court, the time spent waiting for my case to call. It always seemed to me that there was, perhaps, a more efficient alternative. Court business in 2019 was generally being conducted as it was when I started my career in Prince’s party year of 1999, 20 years previously.
But Prince was wrong: the party didn’t end in 2000 but in 2020, when the world as we know it changed.
On 25 March 2020 the Court of Session (Scotland’s highest civil court) closed its doors for business as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Only essential civil business was to be dealt with.
On 14 April however, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) announced that, whilst it would not open its doors, the Inner House of the Court of Session (the appellate court) would open its video conferencing platform to judges, counsel and solicitors, allowing civil appeals to recommence.
Operating as a virtual on-line court, with a three-judge bench, channels are available to each party for their counsel and solicitors. Multiple channels are also available to the outside world to view the virtual court proceedings. This has allowed civil appeal business to re-commence, not quite as usual, but perhaps it signals the start of a new norm.
The SCTS announced that it is increasing its capacity for judges and clerks in the Outer House to work remotely, allowing most civil actions to proceed as scheduled. Procedural hearings (hearings which deal with the management of the case prior to the proof/ trial) will be conducted by telephone conference or written submissions. My colleague, Jamie Reekie, recently had one such hearing and you can see his blog here. The Outer House recently appointed a case to proceed to a proof (trial), which was scheduled to commence on 2 June. This would be the first Scottish virtual proof hearing, with witnesses giving their evidence remotely.
Civil business in other Scottish courts is also being dealt with by telephone conferencing or written submissions. There has however been a first virtual courtroom hearing in a case in Inverness Sheriff court. Another colleague, Craig Watt, conducted the debate by video link, which was watched by several members of the public.
Parties whose cases were put on hold or continued by the court, can now apply to have their case restarted.
For criminal hearings in the Sheriff court, representatives will be able to take part in custody hearings remotely.
This news will be welcomed by all those involved in litigation in Scotland. Moreover, it allows greater efficiently: there is no travel time or wasted waiting time. Paper folders are replaced with electronic files. Post-it notes are replaced with WhatsApp groups, enabling instant communication between clients, solicitors and counsel.
The ability to hold virtual court hearings is a huge milestone in our judicial system. Hopefully, they are not simply here to help keep our courts active through these difficult times but will become a permanent feature of our court system. Perhaps the future of tomorrow has arrived today.