The deputy president of the Supreme Court has expressed fears that young lawyers have been unable to train properly during the pandemic and urged the profession to ensure there is no lasting damage to their education.
But he described difficulties accessing justice in routine cases as a “scandal” which would be alleviated by cheaper remote hearings.
At the online Bond Solon annual expert witness conference last week, Lord Hodge also said that while there had been a number of positive developments emerging from Covid and the justice system had adapted well, there were several negatives too.
He predicted that the Supreme Court would revert to appeal hearings in person partly for symbolic reasons, but he suggested that technology would lead to to significant cost savings in routine legal cases and improve access to justice.
Expressing concern for young lawyers, he said the pandemic had “reduced the opportunities” for them to develop their careers “by watching court cases and having easy access to senior members of the profession from whom they can learn”.
He added that training opportunities had been “seriously disrupted” and recommended that when things returned to “better times”, this disadvantage must be borne in mind by the profession “to ensure there is no lasting detriment”.
He recognised that lawyers had suffered from fewer trials taking place across the courts, with those who survived on public funds being particularly at risk.
He observed that things had also “not been easy for expert witnesses”, with those who gave evidence at criminal trials suffering from postponed trials.
Medical assessments that required face-to-face examination were much more difficult, and, for instance, site visits in construction cases had not been possible during the first lockdown.
He also noted that many clients and law firms had cash flow problems and that experts often had to wait longer for payment for their services.
However, some procedural aspects of the justice system had benefited from the accelerated use of technology, a process that had already been underway with the court modernisation programme. He expected that this would lead to “permanent change in the way we conduct our business when we return to the courtroom”.
There would be money saving and environmental benefits. He added: “More widely, I expect that remote hearings will become an established part of the court process, particularly for incidental and case management business.”
He highlighted the potential of technology to reduce costs in routine claims and urged that the justice system “seize with both hands” the opportunity to remedy the “scandal that people are unable to access justice to settle their routine claims simply because of the cost and inconvenience of litigation”.
He expected some courts to revert to hearings in person partly because working remotely made life more difficult for barristers in that “there is not the spontaneity, the non-verbal messages that people give off without knowing they’re doing it on the screen”.
In the case of the Supreme Court he thought that hearings in person would resume “because I think there is a symbolic role to play at the apex of the legal system”.