The Lord Chief Justice’s Report 2020 was laid before Parliament yesterday. It notes, unsurprisingly, that the last seven months have been dominated by the courts’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic – a response which has been remarkably successful in civil commercial cases, with a widespread move to video and telephone hearings to allow the administration of justice to continue. The tone was set early on, with a message from the Lord Chief Justice four days before the first lockdown in March encouraging judges in all jurisdictions to continue court business through the use of technology (as outlined in this blog post).
While audio and video hearings may not be suitable in all areas, the report notes that for many hearings “remote technology has been very effective, demonstrating the widespread benefits to be gained from modernisation, for example by removing the need to attend court and tribunal centres for short hearings.”
That has certainly been the case in the Business and Property Courts where, the report states, 85% of its work was heard remotely and to the original timetable during lockdown, and consideration is being given to the longer-term potential for increased efficiencies through the use of remote hearings in some aspects of the court’s work. Although the report notes that remote hearings are not always as efficient as physical hearings (as they are more tiring; can be slowed by technical difficulties; and do not allow for parties to come together in the margins of the hearing to resolve issues outside of court) the convenience offsets some of the negative aspects and “there is no doubt that the lessons learned from operating in a pandemic will lead to greater use of technology in the longer term”.
With England about to go back into lockdown, the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals have issued a new message emphasising the need for the administration of justice to continue. It states that the experience since March has left the courts much better prepared, and urges judges to continue to make full use of remote hearings so that cases can be dealt with as soon and as efficiently as possible.
The Lord Chief Justice’s Report 2020 notes that, in the High Court overall, there was a slight fall in claims received in April and May 2020 due to the pandemic but overall the levels have remained as high as in 2019. The work of the Business and Property Courts “continues to underpin the position of English law as the global business law of choice with decisions having a wide impact in financial, business, commodities, insurance, shipping and other markets”. The Commercial Court, which is in its 125th anniversary year, is recognised as one of the world’s leading centres for international business dispute resolution and has attracted a large number of significant and high value claims. 75% of the work in the Commercial Court is international with around 50% having no UK based parties. Business in the Technology and Construction Court has continued to grow with a 6% increase in new cases in the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
With regard to appeals, before the pandemic the Court of Appeal had managed to reduce the time taken to give judgment on a case with permission to appeal by about 35% on average since 2017, reducing the pre-existing backlog of cases and increasing efficiencies. Although a backlog then built up at the start of the pandemic, the court is working through it and does not expect there to be a significant knock-on effect on its work.