An independent evaluation of an online video hearing pilot run by HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has found it was beset by technical failures, ended up much smaller than envisaged, and warned that the participants could be “self-selecting”.
The evaluation, by academics at the London School of Economics led by associate law professor Dr Meredith Rossner, tested user experiences in a small number of party-to-state hearings in the First-tier Tribunal (Tax Chamber).
However, as far as it went, the evaluation reported high levels of user satisfaction with the trial, mainly due to the convenience of not having to travel to a physical hearing..
The academics found that only a small proportion of the initial 108 questionnaires issued by HMCTS resulted in respondents who were suitable for video hearings.
Several were discounted by judges because, for example, the case included lengthy submissions. In a further eight, “the appellant needed an interpreter, was hard of hearing or deaf, blind or partially sighted, or did not have access to a private space”.
Of 20 hearings booked initially, just 11 went ahead and three of them could not proceed at all due to technology ‘fails’.
Of the eight video hearings that were eventually completed, seven suffered brief technical hold-ups, such as wifi network connection problems.
The academics reported the concerns of one tribunal judge that the high level of administrative support provided during the pilot would not be maintained when video hearings proper were rolled out.
Generally the judges handled the hearings well, but one judge was recorded as saying: “I think that video hearings should only be used where they are better than the alternative… they are not as good as ‘in person’ hearings and should not be used just because they might be cheaper.”
The evaluators were concerned that the participants were self-selecting, concluding: “It is likely that there was a self-selection bias in that appellants who returned the initial questionnaire were more amenable to video hearings.”
They recommended “further investigation into barriers to access”.
In a blog announcing publication of the evaluation, HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood acknowledged the pilot had been “small”.
But the results were “largely what we expected at this stage”, she said.
She highlighted that user satisfaction was high, adding: “Participants reported that the hearing itself was clear, easy to navigate, user-friendly and formal enough not to diminish the majesty of the court…
“So, we can take from this that when it works well and it’s suitable, video hearings have the potential to be a more convenient option for some people.”
Further testing and piloting of video hearings would be carried out “later this year as the technology continues to develop”.
She also said: “The prospect of video hearings gives rise to concerns for some – mainly about making sure they are used in the right way and for the right things, and that’s why we are piloting their use and evaluating the impact carefully.
“We also acknowledge that they are not suitable for every hearing and expect their use to be initially relatively limited.”