Announcements in relation to the courts reopening following the COVID-19 closures are being delivered on an almost daily basis.
Our team has attended court over the past couple of weeks – attending motions before the High Court, Circuit Court trials and for the purpose of a High Court hearing based on submissions only. The experience was certainly not what anyone is accustomed to. The installation of screens in front of the judge and the registrar does have an effect on the acoustics in the courtroom. On a positive note, particularly with the motions list, the matters were heard at their allocated times. The capacity restrictions within the courtrooms appear to be strictly adhered to and there is no leniency, certainly from our experience, to allow for extra people. We understand from discussions with counsel that judges appear eager to ensure there is space allocated for members of the public and journalists. We anticipate that there may be logistical difficulties once the personal injuries lists resume. This is particularly so given the number of witnesses usually required in order to run a personal injuries trial.
In order to limit the number of witnesses physically present in court, parties have been asked to try to agree medical and other expert reports. Solicitors for each party must also prepare a document containing the name and contact number for each individual who will be attending the courthouse for each case. This list will be handed to the registrar and used for contact tracing purposes, if required. Consent will need to be obtained from each individual to have their contact details retained for a period of 14 days in line with GDPR requirements. The wearing of face masks has also been advised, unless the person is giving evidence, questioning a witness or addressing the court.
The High Court Personal Injuries List
The newly appointed President of the High Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, made her first statement relating to the personal injuries list. It was the first time such a statement was delivered by video link. She expressed her concerns about the backlog of approximately 320 cases since the courts closed on 18 March 2020. The President said that parties should try to settle claims that warrant settlement in order to “clear out” the list.
The personal injuries list will be commencing on 20 July for one week. Two short assessment only cases will be listed each day, with two “back-up” cases in the event that the cases listed are settled/not in a position to proceed. The plan in Cork is to leave Friday free for overspill of cases from the week as well as to allow for any rulings to take place. Parties are asked to limit witnesses to a minimum.
There will be a remote positive call over of the personal injuries list before Mr Justice Cross on Wednesday 8 July 2020. A positive call over requires the relevant parties to attend to update the court as to whether the matter is ready to proceed or not. If parties do not attend or the matter is not ready to proceed, notice of trial is struck out and the process of setting a matter down for trial must be carried out again. According to the Courts Service announcement, the virtual courtroom has capacity for 100 people. Parties are given an allocated time to dial in and the judge will “move” from room to room.
Hearings to resume
We note that from 14 July 2020 and including September 2020, 15 cases will be listed before the High Court in Dublin on a daily basis. Any cases which have hearing
dates already allocated will retain their date. Instead of a physical call over on the morning of a hearing, that will now take place remotely each morning at 10.30am. The usual “lottery” allocation of cases will take place then with the remaining cases in the list each day. It is unclear how this will work with practitioners from outside Dublin who will have to arrange to be near to the Four Courts in case their case is pulled in the lottery.
We understand that the possibility of video courts is still being considered by a working group within the Courts Service. More courtrooms are being set up with video capabilities. It has been reported that over 300 video court sessions have taken place since the initiative was put into action. We understand that President Irvine hopes to allow for shorter matters, such as motions and call overs, to be heard remotely. It is hoped that this will allow for greater capacity in the courthouses for witness hearings.
As physical settlement talks in courthouses have become almost impossible due to social distancing requirements, practitioners in provincial venues such as Cork and Galway have set up settlement hubs in large hotel ballrooms/conference centres. It appears that attending physical settlement talks at these venues will involve a nominal fee for the use of such facilities. Practitioners in Dublin will also have to find alternative arrangements for talks as they are being discouraged from attending at the Four Courts. In fact, a recent practice direction from the Courts has stated that even talks on the day of a hearing must take place beyond the precincts of the courthouse.
The Long Vacation
While there has been no formal announcement made on the Long Vacation, we believe that the civil courts will not be sitting. However, it appears from the most recent Courts Service announcement that cases will be listed for hearing in September 2020, which is usually not the case. The new legal term for 2020 was expected to commence on 5 October 2020.
While it would seem that there will be some level of normality resuming this month with the personal injuries list, we await confirmation as to the position for the provincial High Court venues, such as Galway and Cork. It is certain that the landscape of hearings will be very different for the foreseeable future.
For more information, please contact a member of our Insurance & Risk team.
The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.