Concern over video court hearings becoming norm after lockdown

PUBLISHED: 16:57 04 June 2020 | UPDATED: 16:58 04 June 2020

Family law group Resolution said it was deeply concerned about the prospect of cuts to face-to-face court provision based on the idea video hearings had worked in lockdown  Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Family law group Resolution said it was deeply concerned about the prospect of cuts to face-to-face court provision based on the idea video hearings had worked in lockdown Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO


Fears have been raised over virtual court hearings becoming standard practice following their use during lockdown.

Family law practitioners warned against adopting the system as the de facto format after the lifting of restrictions on movement.

Lawyers fear further cuts to physical courts based on the idea video hearings proved effective.

The government has closed more than 160 court buildings since 2010.

People in the St Edmundsbury area now face the second longest journey to their nearest court following the closure of Bury St Edmunds Magistrates’ Court in 2016, according to BBC analysis of House of Commons data on the average distances travelled.

Before the pandemic, family law group Resolution said members reported problems with vulnerable people accessing courts and that it was “deeply concerned” about the prospect of further cuts to face-to-face court provision based on the idea video hearings had worked in lockdown.

Suffolk Magistrates’ Court, in Ipswich, was one of the priority court buildings to remain open for essential face-to-face hearings.

Child custody cases were among those being decided remotely due to emergency measures.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service said any technology introduced to assist the wider justice system would be properly evaluated and that it was listening to feedback to understand the experience of users.

A spokesman added: “We continue to work closely with the judiciary to use technology and keep the justice system running during this pandemic.

“Judges will consider the best way for a hearing to take place, taking into account the needs of those participating.”

Edward Cooke, a committee member of Resolution, said court provision delivered by video or phone would never be an adequate substitute to face-to-face contact, adding: “It is vital that judges, social workers and other family justice professionals can see people to make finely balanced decisions that fundamentally affect children and families.”

Mary Marvel, of legal guidance website Advicenow, said she was concerned about an ongoing ‘push towards online courts’, adding: “I think, unfortunately, for the most vulnerable people in our society, [remote court] poses another huge barrier, and when you’re thinking about cases in magistrates court, that might affect your liberty.”

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Through his business, he aims to build a conservation-based economy connecting visitors with Suffolk’s stunning countryside both digitally and physically through safaris and lectures. “I spend most of my time on safari in farmland habitat on the Shotley and Deben peninsulas,” he says. “This guiding season for Spirit of Suffolk started early March and I had several safari bookings as well as two photography workshops planned throughout March and April.” Philip was just one safari into the season – with one urban fox tour under his belt – with the business really taking off when lockdown measures were introduced on March 23, which meant he had to ditch his planned events. Lockdown hit him hard on a personal level too, he admits. “I always thought I would be able to head out to the countryside still, alone, and with caution. But as lockdown measures were introduced I realised this was not to be the case. “On a personal level this was deeply troubling as time spent in nature forms who I am as a person in both actions and spirit. “From a business perspective initially it felt shattering as I could not operate any of the core elements of the business, and to have started the season so spectacularly well with an amazing first safari and superb urban fox tour I really felt bad for the guests that had trips booked and were now not able to take them. “As a wildlife photographer but living in central Ipswich I also felt limited in what I could do photography-wise.” But he picked himself up and started working on his website and social media strategies. It was a “joy” to provide a vital connection with nature to people stuck at home, he said. “Early on in the lockdown I started a project called ‘On the Doorstep’ in which I would spend a little time each day stood on my doorstep and photograph the comings and goings of people.” The project now forms part of a cultural snapshot of Ipswich in 2020 collated by Suffolk Archives. He also used the downtime to create short books. The two titles – Suffolk Wildlife - A Photo Journey, and Spirit Bear - A True Story of Isolation and Survival – have been “very popular”, selling both in the UK and abroad. They even received an accolade from veteran environmentalist and wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough who described them as “delightful”. He has two more planned – the first of which is Bears and Hares, which is set to be followed by a collection of photo stories from the doorstep project. As lockdown eased in early August he was able to resume his safaris, initially on a two-week trial basis. The pilot proved very successful and as a result he was able to begin booking events again. “Although we are nearing the quieter season I continue to take people out who are keen on enjoying the beauty of Suffolk and its wonderful wildlife and I am personally excited for the beauty and joys of autumn,” he says. “People often purchase the safaris as a gift for someone else and this continues to be popular, as a birthday present or Christmas present that can be redeemed at any point in the future.” From October, he is also planning to resume his one-day photography workshops. “I have always loved showing people the wonders of nature, whether that be a grizzly, a barn owl, killer whales or an urban fox. I think the lockdown period offered a different appreciation for the things around us and I am ever so excited to be with people again and to be showing them all the wonderful wildlife of my favourite spots in Suffolk.” He has had to adapt the tours to ensure safety, but the changes are subtle and don’t detract from the main goal - which is seeing nature, he says. “I now encourage the guest to bring along their own drink and snacks and to also bring their own pair of binoculars. We do wear face coverings while in the vehicle and with the windows open to ensure ventilation. Such changes have been well received by the safari guests and we continue to have some great wildlife viewing.” He’ll be “forever grateful” to his customers and guests for their support and understanding during the pandemic. “Recovery all depends on the current status of local restrictions and the virus itself. I am hoping that a vaccine can be in place as soon as possible. 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