The landscape of February is gone, and legal professionals are all now working in previously unknown circumstances.
The daily routine has vanished, we are for the most part not physically attending court, and traditional ways of doing things have changed.
Recently I was in a far flung county court with a solicitor colleague as we dealt with a financial case before a District Judge. My opponent barrister was reasonable, the parties were taking advice, and as a result it was possible to agree directions within an hour of arrival.
Having arrived at 9am, this meant that we were ready, with a draft order, before the time the morning list began. Yet we waited for over four hours as the judge fastidiously worked through his list, including working through his lunch.
I had used up all my small talk by 11am. My solicitor was better- she lasted until 12pm. But there was still a large amount of time we could not use to do anything else.
Having been called in to court in the afternoon, the judge took all of five minutes to greet us, consider the agreed directions, approve the directions, and send us away. A very inefficient use of time which will be familiar to anyone who has ever attended court.
Now, there is a new way of working which may, or may not, stay around.
Many barristers use technology for meetings and hearings. Telephone hearings have been around for some time, and video feels like the natural extension of that.
The best thing about the new regime is that waiting times have been reduced exponentially. Not that long ago one would see a morning list with seven cases at 10am. All barristers would diligently arrive at court 30 minutes or an hour before to speak with their clients. To be the first case called would mean a client conference, straight in, debrief, then away.
To be the last one on would often mean – as in my case above – staying until after lunch. The chance of getting much else done that day was unlikely.
What the court is now doing is giving each remote hearing a unique start time. Instead of all parties and advocates being “at court” from 9am for a “10am” listing, we now know whether we are starting at 10am, or 11:30, or 12:15 for example.
There are extra administrative burdens. The solicitor for the applicant is expected to gather up all the contact numbers for the parties and send those to the judge. If one party is a difficult litigant in person, this can mean (as happened in one of my recent hearings) considerable delays while trying to persuade another party (perhaps a more neutral party in the proceedings) to take the lead in gathering contact details, so that the court has all the necessary information it needs to call the hearing participants at the relevant time.
Where the hearings really are better however, is in planning. Litigation is stressful for most parties involved. I have heard repeatedly throughout the years that the most difficult part of “hearing day” is the waiting around at court, often sharing a waiting room with the opposition. Now, pre-hearing conversations can be arranged at whatever time suits the client and the lawyers. No more waiting around in the cold and rain outside a court building where security do not open the doors until 9am (and sometimes much later) as the parties in your case eyeball each other across the concrete. No more rushing into the building in a fever trying to grab one of perhaps only two conference rooms when there are 20 hearings listed in that building. No more trying to find a quiet corner to have a conversation in private, in the midst of 20 other barristers trying to do the same thing.
Many barristers (me included) have full digital office setups for printing, scanning, and receiving papers. Telephone and video conferencing facilities have been part of our lives for many years. Even those of us who do not have an entire room set aside as a home office are likely to be offering a much more private and focussed service over the phone or via video link from our homes than is sometimes possible being physically in a court building.
These are difficult and sad times. There are however some silver linings to the very dark clouds that surround us. I for one hope that some of the new working methods we have been forced to adopt stay with us after the virus has become a distant memory.
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