Concern over video court hearings becoming norm after lockdown
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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.
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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.
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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.”