A High Court judge has voiced concerns that young solicitors and barristers are missing out on a “huge amount” of training because of virtual hearings.
Mrs Justice Cockerill said the benefits of being able not only to see more senior colleagues in action, but “everything that is going on in a court room” was “immense”.
Speaking at a session on virtual and hybrid hearings at a webinar hosted by London’s Commercial Court yesterday, Cockerill J said it was only in the informal setting of a physical court hearing that junior members of the profession could ask all the questions that they needed to raise.
Joe Smouha QC, joint head of chambers at Essex Court Chambers, said he was concerned that young lawyers were missing out not only on the “court dynamic” by not going to face-to-face hearings, but on the opportunity to work as one of a team and participate in discussions.
“Some of the most important learning can come from discussions to and from court,” he said.
Although senior barristers could think about ways to substitute that, it was unrealistic to think that “a whole team can jump on a call” immediately after a virtual hearing so junior barristers could ask questions.
Richard Little, partner at Eversheds Sutherland, agreed that “one of the key things” for junior lawyers was the experience of going to court, and that was being lost.
Introducing the event – which marked the 125th anniversary of the Commercial Court, Lord Justice Flaux said his experience of virtual hearings consisted entirely of civil and criminal appeal hearings on Skype.
He said the principal difference for the judge was that “everything is two-dimensional” on Skype.
It was not just about being able to see if a witness was surreptitiously texting or tweeting but assessing the reactions of legal advisers was “very difficult to do” on Skype.
“Things you would see as a judge in court are in effect taking place elsewhere.”
Professor Jackie van Haersolte-van Hof, director-general of the London Court of International Arbitration, said it was important not to underestimate the value of in-person hearings.
She said the voices of “actual clients” should be heard. Members of tribunals who did not know each other could save time later on in the process by meeting for the first time in person.
Mr Little highlighted two problems of virtual hearings for solicitors, in lacking the “real-time discussions and interactions with clients and counsel” which could help guide negotiations, and the challenges in terms of online security.
However, he said there were important cost savings from virtual hearings: he gave the example of two clients who travelled to London from France to give evidence for a total of five minutes.
Professor van Haersolte-van Hof said she believed that “Continental techniques” would become more of a feature of English virtual hearings – for example, questions being filtered through the chair of an arbitral tribunal to avoid people talking over each other online.
She said that arbitration was “ahead of the curve” in terms of hearing witnesses remotely and now hearing centres were being set up in different time zones for international arbitrations.
These offered advantages both in terms of better technology and improved security for witnesses giving evidence as third parties could be present to monitor them.