The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the way the civil courts operate in Scotland. The hustle and bustle of the court corridors and filled court rooms now, strangely, feels like a distant memory.

The pandemic has launched the civil courts into the virtual world in order to keep the wheels of justice turning. The Scottish courts have adapted, replacing courtroom hearings with virtual hearings.

Greater access to justice

There are major benefits that flow from virtual civil courts and online services. Indeed, virtual courts have enabled the Scottish civil court system to continue (albeit at much reduced levels) which has brought many other businesses and services to a halt. Between 21 April and 12 June, 152 hearings were conducted remotely in the Court of Session by either video conference or by telephone. My colleague, Jamie Reekie, recently blogged about his positive experience conducting a telephone hearing in the Court of Session's Commercial Court.

Virtual courts and online services contribute to a faster and more efficient court system. Party litigants, the court system and legal representatives may be able to benefit from substantial savings in time and costs. For example, parties are not restricted to the courts' opening hours and can submit documents relating to their case at any time of the day using the online services. The reduction in the need for people to physically attend the court may reduce the courts' operational costs. Solicitors and clients can also benefit from reduced travelling time to and from court as well as time spent waiting for a case to be called.

The use of virtual civil courts and online services also presents an opportunity for improved and wider access to justice. Members of the public who are not familiar with the legal system but have suffered a loss or wrong, may be encouraged to exercise their rights and raise an action due to the ease of accessibility to join a hearing virtually and the removal of the need to physically attend court. Likewise, defenders may also be encouraged to engage and participate with the legal process. This point is perhaps most relevant to low value non-complex claims which take up a large proportion of business in sheriff courts.

Looking to the future

A statement issued by the Lord President confirmed that virtual hearings and online services will become an integral part of the Scottish legal system. The Lord President said the court is a public service and not just a physical space and 'virtual courts and online services should, and now will, be viewed as core components of the justice system'.

Inevitably, there will be challenges to overcome. For example, those who may not have access to the internet, or are unfamiliar with technology, might be unable to participate in a virtual hearing. Concerns have also been raised about removing the face-to-face element of a hearing which is a key part of communication. However, the court has demonstrated its ability to adapt to change and tackle challenges arising in the process by providing solutions to ensure the wheels of justice continue to turn. Virtual civil courts may just become the 'new norm'.


Jessica Bonar

Trainee at Brodies LLP