Zooming into the Future: Success in UK’s first online trial

May 2, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

A commercial court case has recently been held entirely via Zoom, with the footage livestreamed and later uploaded to YouTube.

What does this mean?

The multi-party legal proceedings, brought by the Republic of Kazakhstan, were initially set to be heard over seven days in the High Court. However, the trial was forced online because of coronavirus, resulting in judges, barristers, solicitors, witnesses and other court staff dialling in to the UK’s first ever virtual trial. Including Zoom and YouTube, there were four software companies involved, with Sparq and Opus2 providing technical support and live transcription respectively. 

The pragmatism and practicality of all parties involved in this case is to be commended. Mr. Justice Teare had to wait until the Coronavirus Act 2020 was passed (a temporary Act designed to allow more use of video links in trials and to livestream cases for public access) before agreeing to the proposed directions by Kazakhstan’s lawyers for the case to be hosted on Zoom. Mr Tom Lidstorm (partner at LinkLaters and the legal representative to one of the parties) commented that the technology “worked very well” and that online trials may be “inevitable” in the future.

What's the big picture effect?

Although the use of Zoom is a new development in the English courts, livestreamed trials are not. Since 2013, the Supreme Court has kept an active YouTube channel, and select Court of Appeal cases have also been live-streamed as part of a pilot scheme aimed at increasing public access to landmark and important legal decisions. Additionally, the use of video and telephone links is widespread in lower-level trials held at Magistrates’ Court. 

It is positive to see that the courts are slowly but surely embracing technology and the further digitisation of the legal system. However, the switch to remote hearings will come with its own set of challenges. Jonathan Fisher QC (Barrister at Bright Light Law) notes that barristers and judges might need to change their style in court, as certain advocacy techniques may not translate well on screen. 

Given the court’s steady trajectory to remote trials (starting with YouTube livestreams), it is a welcome change which will likely cause a lasting shift so that more online trials are used, particularly in cases where there is an international dimension.

Report written by Roslyn Lai

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