Julia Donnelly, who heads up our Family Law team, recently made legal history by conducting the first Scottish virtual civil proof hearing involving evidence from witnesses held on Monday 15 June 2020.
Arrangements for the case, which concerned a father’s application for contact with his children, involved extensive collaboration between the court service in Scotland and the court service in England and Wales; as well as between the two solicitors acting on behalf of the family members.
Steps were taken to put special measures in place to ensure that a vulnerable witness could give evidence behind a ‘digital screen’. Following careful planning with HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), some witnesses and one party joined the proceedings from an employment tribunal building in England to avoid unnecessary travel. The other party was at a remote location in Hamilton with her witness. The two solicitors conducted the litigation from their offices. All participants were linked up by Webex, and this platform also allowed for spectators to join, which was important given the proof would normally be held in a public court.
Arrangements were in place for the solicitors to communicate confidentially with their clients by mobile or text message to obtain instructions throughout the duration of the hearing to ensure full participation. Adjournments were allowed when required to facilitate this.
After a careful testing process in the lead up to the hearing, and a dress-rehearsal in relation to technology – the ground-breaking proof in the end ran very smoothly.
Aisha Anwar, Sheriff Principal of South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway, who presided over the hearing, said: “This is a significant collaborative effort bringing together people from across a broad geographical range into one virtual court.
“The family courts are focussed on making decisions which are in the best interests of children. In some cases, an online hearing may be the most appropriate means to enable a decision to be reached as quickly as possible in a safe environment while physical distancing measures are in place.
“I am very grateful to all involved who have worked tirelessly to enable this hearing to proceed.”
“Staff from the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service are working extremely hard to ensure that as many types of case as possible can be heard remotely, and this is another huge step forward.”
Julia Donnelly, Senior Partner, Livingstone Brown, said:
“The justice system is an integral part of any functioning society. The recent pandemic has forced us to find innovative ways of doing business, while at the same time protecting the rights of those involved. I firmly believe that virtual courts, using cutting edge videoconferencing, are a key part of the solution. I’m very grateful to Sheriff Principal Anwar and SCTS for identifying this and working so hard to make the concept a reality.”