Wednesday, 22 April 2020

The first virtual court hearing in Scotland - a practitioner's view


Yesterday, we acted for the appellant in the first ever virtual court hearing to take place in Scotland, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The hearing was an appeal to the Inner House of the Court of Session, from a decision of the Sheriff Court in the case of Stuart Campbell v Kezia Dugdale.  The appeal was heard by The Lord President, Lord Carloway, sitting with Lord Menzies and Lord Brodie.  Craig Sandison QC appeared for the appellant and Roddy Dunlop QC for the respondent. 

The hearing had originally been scheduled to take place last month, the day after the nationwide lock-down was announced.  The new virtual hearing date was arranged in consultation with the clerk of court and Senior Counsels’ diaries on three week’s notice and it was agreed that parties would submit full written submissions in advance of the hearing, to assist with the smooth running of proceedings and to ensure that the court stipulated duration of three hours could be adhered to.

Following a brief training session on the video conferencing software by a member of the IT team at Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service a week beforehand, there was then a “dress rehearsal” with judges and counsel, to make sure everything was in place for the hearing proper, and issues, from echoey microphones to who to contact if there should be technological glitch during the hearing, were discussed.

The video conferencing software used by the courts worked extremely smoothly.  “Panellists” – the judges, counsel and the clerk of court - were provided with log-in details that allowed them to be viewed on screen and to be heard.  “Attendees” - such as agents, clients and members of the press -  were provided with a different link that allowed only viewing of the proceedings, with device cameras and microphones automatically muted.  Viewing proceedings in “gridview” allowed all panellists to be seen at once, much like a more cerebral version of  the “House Parties” those of us with a wide enough social circle are becoming accustomed to during this period of social distancing.

The hearing itself, once started, very quickly became indistinguishable from one proceeding in a physical courtroom.  We had arranged with Senior Counsel beforehand to contact each other by text message, should any issues arise where that would be required.  Judges appeared to have both hard copy and electronic papers to refer to, and were easily able to interrupt counsel where necessary to pose any questions they had.  There was only one brief moment of panic, when Senior Counsel for the Respondent failed to appear back on screen after a brief mid-morning break,  but that was quickly remedied.  The court made avizandum (that is, will consider matters and announce its decision at a later date) but then, rather than “court rise”, the video feed of each participant eventually unceremoniously flickered off screen, as each “left meeting”. 

In all then, a quietly historic moment in the provision of justice in Scotland. Our thanks go to everyone who worked so incredibly hard to make this happen and to make it ultimately seem so effortless.

[For some of the press and official comment on the hearing see:

Virtual court hears Kezia Dugdale defamation appeal and The virtual world is new normal in Scottish courts (BBC)
Court reports successful first virtual hearing (Law Society of Scotland)
Legal history as 'virtual court' hears Kezia Dugdale appeal case (Scotsman)
A small piece of Scottish legal history  (Scottish Review)] 

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