Update: an experience of a Court trial in the time of Coronavirus
The four day trial in the case of Playboy Club London Limited v Banca Nazionale del Lavoro SpA which was listed in August 2019 to take place from 30 March 2020 in the Rolls Building in London came to a conclusion last week having been conducted in a fully virtual manner.
It could not have been predicted seven months ago that a complete overhaul in the way civil trials are conducted would be required in such a short space of time and, in particular, that each individual participating in the trial in this case, including the Judge, advocates, solicitors, witnesses, interpreters and transcribers would be required to take part in a video conference in order for the trial to go ahead as planned (or as close to planned as possible). The turn of events was as unexpected as it was novel and required all parties to adapt extremely quickly to the rapidly developing situation regarding the Covid‑19 pandemic.
In the lead up to the trial, the Courts were releasing daily updates on how processes were being put in place for the civil justice system to be preserved. It was clear that the administration of justice remained a priority for the Government and for those running the Courts. Guidance and Practice Directions were issued including a Protocol for Remote Hearings and a new Practice Direction 51Y which allows for hearings to be heard in private where the hearing cannot be broadcast in a court building. If, however, such a broadcast is practicable, representatives from the media are free to access the broadcast in order to observe the trial, which is deemed to have taken place in public. The implemented systems had been thoughtfully and meticulously considered which meant that they worked in practice and that business as usual could continue as far as possible.
Whilst remote hearings inevitably suffer interruptions not encountered in the course of a physical trial, with WIFI connections being interrupted, delays in audio, webcams breaking and problems with logging in, the Playboy trial which the Simkins team participated from 30 March to 2 April showed that there is certainly the willingness and ability for more of the court process to take place online in future.
For example, given the logistical difficulties meaning that some of the parties’ hard copy trial bundles were no longer accessible, Simkins was required to quickly produce fully hyperlinked, searchable and bookmarked electronic trial bundles only five days before the start of the trial. These were uploaded to a shared platform to which Court documents could be added by the parties and downloaded by the Judge 250 miles away and, indeed, by a witness who was on lockdown in Italy.
The transcripts were produced on a daily basis in the same way as a physical court hearing and we are aware that at least one journalist logged in to the trial to watch the proceedings.
Having conducted the hearing with very few technological interruptions, and with the cooperation of all those involved, including the Judge and the Judge’s clerk, it was reassuring to see how quickly and successfully the Courts have moved to ensure that trials can continue to be heard. It was a remarkably efficient and effective process and demonstrated that the administration of justice should and could continue, even in these truly extraordinary times.