While much of UK life ground to a halt in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government sought to keep the wheels of justice turning.

To achieve this while also ensuring compliance with public health guidance on social distancing and associated legal restrictions, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has relied extensively on remote hearings, generating a significant experiment in digital justice as a consequence.

HMCTS was already in the process of an extensive, expensive, and controversial digital transformation project, but the arrival of the coronavirus in the UK caused a dramatic shift from conventional justice processes to remote hearings in a matter of days.

Read: ‘Judicial Review in the Administrative Court during the Covid-19 Pandemic’

Our latest report is based on a series of semi-structured interviews with practitioners, and presents the first set of preliminary empirical findings concerning how the judicial review process in the Administrative Court has operated under COVID-19 measures.

  • There is support for hearings still being able to go ahead and remote hearings have certain strengths. The Administrative Court has demonstrated good practice in a number of areas.
  • There are also various technical difficulties arising, as well as more fundamental concerns about open justice and participant engagement.
  • Remote hearings are not seen as universally appropriate, even in a jurisdiction with a focus on ‘law-heavy’ disputes. There was significant concern about the use of remote hearings for cases that involved litigants in person, were particularly complex, or where significant case management had not been completed prior to the hearing.

We intend to collect further data on how the Administrative Court is operating during the pandemic. However, data collection by the Administrative Court and HMCTS would assist in the collective endeavour of ensuring the Administrative Court is both working and seen to be working in these extraordinary times.

PLP’s Research Director Dr Joe Tomlinson said:

“The Administrative Court and its staff, along with legal practitioners and claimants, are keeping going under extraordinary pressures. We found there was wide support for keeping the Court working. 

“At the same time, it is important that careful monitoring and evaluation is undertaken to allow an assessment of whether the contingency plan is working and does not undermine the quality of justice, particularly for those who are vulnerable. Our new findings suggest there is more work to be done to put in place relevant safeguards.”