Credit: The Old Bailey (above). Amanda Slater on Flickr via Creative Commons Licence

One of the highlights of 2021 was viral footage of a Texan lawyer who accidentally activated a cat filter during a legal proceeding held on Zoom.

In the UK, the justice system has also had to adapt to a virtual setting throughout the pandemic. But it is not just lawyers who have felt these perils; court reporters have also experienced a period of adjustment.

When the pandemic hit, the UK government introduced The Coronavirus Act 2020, an emergency piece of legislation to handle the crisis. This meant that UK courts and tribunals started to use video and audio technology so proceedings could be viewed by the public, including court reporters covering the cases.

Although the restrictions are easing, video calls are not going away anytime soon. The Coronavirus Act has been extended until September this year, meaning remote hearings will continue until then. After then, a new Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is likely to come into effect, making virtual attendance of courts and tribunals a mainstay, though subject to a judge's discretion.

Perils and pitfalls

The transition to virtual court attendance has had its fair share of bumps in the ground, according to The Evening Standard's court correspondent Tristan Kirk. In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, he spoke about the ups and downs of virtual hearings during the pandemic.

Kirk said that the legal system lacked the initial digital technology and infrastructure to make a smooth transition. Participants were initially dialling in through Skype and then a dedicated Cloud video platform where links did not always work and with settings that were not acoustically designed for this type of set-up. It was often hard to hear who was talking and pick up the important details.

This is, of course, crucial if a journalist needs to know about contempt of court orders or reporting restrictions. Normally the clerk of the court is on hand to clarify these questions, or details on court lists, addresses, charges or even the spelling of names. But it is hard to chime in and ask questions in a virtual setting and so these routine questions needed to be handled through follow up emails, relying on the goodwill of court staff.

Those peripheral things you take for granted in a courtroom were suddenly not there for you.

Listening over the phone or tuning in through a camera lens also fails to encapsulate the typical drama you expect in a courtroom. Journalists are missing out on "things like reactions from the dock, the defendant reacting to what's been said about them, not being able to see the barristers or judge, not understanding who the other people in the courtroom are - like family members of victims and defendants," Kirk explains.

"Those peripheral things you take for granted in a courtroom were suddenly not there for you, and you had to adapt to cope without them."

What is also missing are the nuggets of information and story tips you can collect from wandering around court lobbies, speaking to lawyers, police officers and court staff. While Kirk said there was no substitute for in-person tips, being more proactive with existing contacts has proven to make up for any shortfall.

Upsides and benefits

On the bright side, virtual hearings are much more practical when a full day of work could mean up to four different hearings at four different venues across the town.

"When you're working at home, jumping from East London to West London is a matter of seconds," says Kirk. "You can fit a lot more in but accept the downsides of not actually being there."

Improving accessibility could also see a rekindling of interest in court reporting. In 2019, The Cairncross Review into the sustainable future for journalism warned about the decline of reporting on democracy due to dwindling newspaper revenue and newsroom cuts.

In particular, it cited court reporting as an area that could suffer from the lack of resources in the newsroom: "The decline appears to have been particularly stark in the case of the courts (at both national and local levels), and of local news. It is, of course, local news provision that has suffered the largest contraction in recent years."

Virtual attendance has the capacity to get more journalists in the newsrooms involved with court reporting, but also spark more interest in the young talent coming through. However, universities have not been able to take their journalism students to visit courts as they normally would.

Miriam Phillips, programme leader of journalism at Bournemouth University, says that this is concerning because potentially two years' worth of students will enter the industry without prior working knowledge of how the courts function. Conversely, virtual attendance could do wonders both for training and sparking an interest in the field.

"To learn how to be a court reporter, without a doubt, you need to be in court," says Phillips.

"This is really vital if you are reporting on your community, you need to know what’s going through your local courts."

Livestreaming into lecture halls could be an idea to take forward, but the inability to pause and explain different roles and relevant points could prove an issue.

Universities can apply for students to attend virtual courts, but in reality, there is nothing stopping students from making these requests themselves. If they are denied, students can call upon a set of guidelines produced for HM Courts & Tribunals Service staff to support media access to courts and tribunals.

A section for student journalists states they can sit on the public gallery where they are entitled to take notes without permission from the court or judge or magistrate. In sensitive cases, such as organised crime, students should identify themselves to staff in advance.

It goes on to say: "If you receive a request from a student journalist, please speak to the judge presiding over the case or trial. If a lecturer wants to attend court with a group of students to observe a case or hearing, it is good practice (but not mandatory) to let the court know in advance."

Opening up the justice system virtually also increases the scope of hearings beyond their local area.

"Wouldn't it be great if students in Bournemouth or Sunderland could access court cases in the Old Bailey [in London]? You wouldn’t normally be able to do that," says Phillips.

She warns that if a hybrid model were to ever be the working model, with courts operating either virtually or physically, newsroom editors must not cease all trips to courts. It is a view shared by Kirk, who says that having the option would allow him to save long commutes to quick hearings and be there in-person for the big, dramatic cases.

"It's my strong, fervent hope that journalists will have the same level and capacity of access as barristers, defendants and anyone else who wants to join hearings remotely," says Kirk.

"An ideal day for me would harness the technology to cover the shorter hearings [virtually] while focusing your attention to, say, a criminal trial that really demands your physical presence. Hopefully, [Police, Crime Sentencing, Courts Bill 2021] passes, codifying the powers we now have and then we can build on those to be part of the system."

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