As a pupil in a global pandemic, I have had my fair share of both in Court and Cloud Video Platform experiences. As we all have, I have heard the phrase ‘you’re on mute’ far more times than I care to relay, but equally I have had enough emails to warn that another Court has had positive cases in recent days and has had shut for deep cleaning. As a very junior member of the Bar, this new uncertain normal, is my normal, but as I watch all levels of the Bar utilise the CVP network in an attempt to keep everybody safe, I can’t help but wonder whether we should see it as a friend or a foe, and whether it has a place in the future.
When I commenced pupillage back in September 2020, I was somewhat lucky to start at a time when the government restrictions were slightly more relaxed than they had been. I set off in my shiny shoes, attended Court and was able to have a relaxed lunch inside a restaurant afterwards, getting to know my supervisor. As the weeks went on, I was able to attend Court more often than I wasn’t and didn’t have much experience of CVP until I was forced to self-isolate after coming into contact with a positive case in Court one Friday afternoon. In the middle of a four-week trial, it was a saviour to be able to still watch and learn as the trial went on from my desk at home, whilst noting down any questions that I had to then ask my supervisor later on. For about a week, it was great, I got to lie in, didn’t have to travel and watched a trial unfold with my slippers on and a mug of coffee, but the novelty soon started to wear off. I began to realise that the human interaction with my supervisor and the Court counted for a lot. It was the tiny random questions that would pop into my head over lunch that I could ask, it was the missed opportunities of introductions in passing and the learning of the smallest details. After my fourteen days in isolation, and fortunately having been well throughout, I was ready to return to Court in person wherever and whenever I could safely do so.
When the second lockdown hit in November, I still managed to spend more time in Court than I did online but the ratio had moved to being more of a 60/40, as opposed it having been 80/20, and in January it became 10/90 in favour of being at home. I utilised the time well though, by joining hearings with anybody and everybody that I could in an attempt to fill my days and see as much advocacy as possible from the junior end upwards. Thanks to the platform, I could be observing a plea and trial preparation hearing in Leeds at 1000, slot in a Teams conference in at 1100, a small claims dispute in Kent at 1200 and another in South Wales at 1400. Thanks to CVP I dare say I have been able to see more cases and advocacy than I would have, had I been travelling around because it means that you can be in more than two places at once. It also means that I have joined links to cases far beyond this Circuit, cases which have given vital work to the most junior.
In a time when we are also being asked to be more environmentally conscious, I believe CVP has a permanent place in some settings, in helping to battle the need for counsel to travel all over the Circuit and further afield. Whether we like it or not, it is a very real dilemma that we must move towards being a more sustainable profession and do our part to protect the world in which we live, whether that be by travelling that little bit less or by reducing our obsession with paper. It also undoubtedly offers claimants and witnesses a sense of comfort by delivering their evidence from their home, rather than attending an artificially lit building that they would never otherwise have to attend.
However, whilst we all love the convenience of dialling in from home, we must not forget the basic principles of what being a barrister is all about and remember to strike the right balance for the time being. While CVP offers us on the North Eastern Circuit an opportunity to take on work in the far corners of the country, it is also an open invitation to those on other Circuits and solicitors to retain work in-house or to take on work on our door step without commercial disadvantage because they never have to physically attend at Court other than to pick up the trial, crack or plea fee.
Moreover, whilst picking up a mention in Wrexham is good experience and work for the most junior, if senior advocates on the Circuit are able to hang on to every case from home or from a Court across the county, there is the potential for great difficulty for those of us starting out in the Crown Court who are desperate for a return close to home. Additionally, in a time when the Government are taking the chance to make cuts wherever they can, there is a very real fear that giving them the opportunity to experiment with virtual docks will demonstrate that it is much cheaper to avoid transporting defendants from their cells to Court and to try them from a booth in prison. We must not forget that everybody has the right to a fair trial, and with our mixed experiences of internet connections, invisible links and nobody entering the conference pin, can we be sure to deliver a transparent justice system when the defendant has to observe his liberty being debated from a television screen?
There is an important point to make about justice being seen to be done. Conducting hearings via CVP, whilst practical, feels less real, it is one of the reasons that witnesses are preferred to give their evidence from the witness box rather than by link if possible. Courtroom advocacy is theatrical and emotive and while we might try our best to be professional on the screen, we all know that you’re wearing your joggers and slippers on the bottom and looking at the robin on the window whilst the opposition makes their submissions. Advocacy and giving evidence aren’t just about the spoken words, it is recognising the unspoken ones too. The eye contact, the shifty glance, body language speaks volumes in the Courtroom, and it is unfortunately lost to the platform. I have little doubt to believe that defendants must feel this way too, especially when they don’t have anyone to see them in the cells to explain things.
The Cloud Video Platform has been our close friend during these turbulent times. It has given us the opportunity to continue delivering justice, to continue working and earning in a very difficult time and has given pupils like me, a chance to still have a pupillage. Alas, it may also have given us a false sense of security in falling for the convenience of working wherever we can, at the potential expense of the professions long term best interests.
Park Square Barristers