Virtual Remote Courts Piloted in Ireland this morning.

20th April 2020

Today for the first time ever, the courts in Ireland sat with all parties being present in court via remote video technology.
These Virtual Courtrooms will add to the other Social Distancing measures introduced by the courts in response to the Covid 19 pandemic.

Both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal heard matters in individual cases via judges, practitioners and parties appearing via video from remote locations. The cases were displayed on video screens in largely empty courts for members of the media present.

In the near future reporters will be able to access cases remotely via secure and password protected links -  acting as the eyes and ears of the public. The Courts will  roll-out the technology in suitable cases in the coming days and weeks.

Other initiatives to organise future court hearings via extended social distancing planning will continue and expand in the coming weeks.

In a statement delivered in court via remote link, The Chief Justice, Frank Clarke emphasised that modernisation of processes was also taking place, in tandem with the use of technology. He said that a new practice direction provided for new ways of clarifying matters in cases - in advance - so as to allow for a change in how the court and counsel interact via technology. He indicated that this would aid the use of technology by proving for less interjection for clarification purposes during the hearings.
The Courts Service are operating this piloting of remote courts from within current resources - and by changing the way they use their current ICT infrastructure. The Chief Justice expressed his gratitude to the Courts Service, professions, and all involved in making such novel changes so quickly.

The Chief Justice, the Presidents of the various courts, and the Courts Service are continuing to look at ways to conduct cases in Courts, post the present Covid- 19 guidelines, while respecting social distancing and ensuring the safety of court users, staff and the Judiciary.

The technology used is widely adaptable for those who need to be involved in cases. A virtual meeting room (VMR) is set up for the purpose of each court sitting. The Courts Service are using a leading VMR service which uses a video streaming app called PEXIP. This is an industry leader in inter-operability. Parties can join a PEXIP VMR session from other video streaming services, including Skype, Zoom, Cisco Webex, Teams etc, without the requirement that all parties use either the same app or a managed integration tool to connect. The in-court hardware is that usually used for video-link to prisons and video conference with remote witnesses.

We include the full statement of the Chief Justice below.

First Remote Hearings in a Virtual Court Room Environment

Statement of the Chief Justice Mr Justice Frank Clarke:

Good morning

This is the first remote hearing of the Supreme Court although I suspect that it will be the first of many in the coming weeks and months. Before dealing with the case management listed I should acknowledge the work the Courts Service it in putting this facility in place.

While other jurisdictions (countries) have started or announced the commencement of remote hearings in many cases they were coming from a significantly higher technology base than us.

While remote hearings are an obvious focus of this morning and while such hearings are likely to prove suitable for most if not all cases in this court and many in the Court of Appeal, it must be acknowledged that different considerations apply in trial courts.

Remote hearings will be suitable for some types of proceedings in the High Court and a limited number of cases in the District and Circuit Courts. The court Presidents and the Courts Service are exploring ways in which to increase the number of cases which can be dealt with in physical hearings.

It must also be acknowledged that many urgent cases throughout the country have been handled by dedicated judges and staff often working in difficult conditions. The District Court in particular has, because of its caseload of often urgent criminal and family hearings, had to bear a particular load.

Returning to this court, I issued a new practice direction on Thursday last which varies the existing practice direction for the duration of material restrictions during the Covid 19 pandemic. A default position of remote hearings is an important feature, but there are others.

A move to significant electronic lodgement and filing of documents is one. The practice direction speaks of guidance on electronic documentation. This guidance is being worked on as some difficulties have been encountered in managing documentation which consists of a large volume of scanned hard copy resulting in very large electronic files.

I am well aware that there are many document management systems out there some of which have been used in cases before our courts – including this court. However some of these systems can be expensive and require experience to operate and I am anxious that the basic system to be used in this court should be easily accessible to all, while allowing parties who wish to use more sophisticated platforms to do so.

The court conducted a mock trial last Friday. Can I take this opportunity to publicly thank those barristers, solicitors and courts staff who participated. While it was inevitable that some difficulties were encountered I consider that the experiment was sufficiently successful to allow us to move to real hearings. For that mock appeal, draft guidance on the conduct of remote hearings was circulated to participants. Some revision of that draft will be made in the coming days to reflect the experience of last Friday and that guidance will then be made available as the practice direction contemplates.

Perhaps the most significant departure addressed in the practice direction involves the adoption of a procedure which the court has been considering for a little while but which has been expedited in the current circumstances. It involves the possible circulation by the court, in advance of the oral hearing, of either or both of a “statement of case” and a “clarification request”.  The statement of case will set out the court’s understanding of the facts, the relevant findings of the courts which have dealt with the case, the issues which arise on the appeal and the positions of the parties on those issues.

Where the court is unclear on any of those matters clarification will be sought. It is hoped that this procedure will bring greater clarity to the issues in advance and reduce the need for interventions from the court for purely clarification purposes. It is unlikely that remote hearings would be suited to some of the forms of debate between the court and counsel which have been common in the past.

These changes will be kept under constant review as the court gains experience in the use of remote hearings. However the adoption of the practice of issuing a statement of case some 10 to 14 days before the hearing means that it will be a short while before most substantive appeals can go ahead under this new process. Some initial appeals have been identified and the parties concerned will shortly be contacted about the possibility of cases commencing to be heard under the new procedures in the weeks commencing May 11th.

Having said all that I should now go on to the case management before the court this morning.