Covid-19 brought ‘seismic’ change to justice system, committee hears 

Pandemic ‘fast-forwards’ shift to remote hearings but also raises capacity concerns 
 
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a “seismic” change in how justice is administered in the State, an Oireachtas committee has heard. 
Legal representative groups and academics told the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee the pandemic has accelerated some changes around remote hearings, but also has raised significant logistical issues and potential pitfalls in accessing justice promptly. 
 
Michele O’Boyle, the president of the Law Society, told the committee the introduction of remote hearings in April “marked a seismic shift in the manner in which justice is administered in the State”. 
 
“Recent months have seen a remarkable fast-forwarding in the adoption and implementation of technology right across the profession,” she said, which is likely to be permanent “as many traditional ways of doing business are unlikely to ever return”. 
 
Ms O’Boyle added that the use of technology, and the introduction of a legislative framework to facilitate remote hearings “paves the way for the courts service and the judiciary to offer an improved and more cost efficient service to the public”, but cautioned that “fit-for-purpose technology platforms must be available”. 
 
Maura McNally SC, the chair of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, warned however that there were emerging issues around physical infrastructure capacities within the courts system, saying that while all stakeholders were trying to ensure access to justice, “you’re trying to fit the equivalent of a square peg into a round hole”. 
 
“The resources aren’t there, and by resources I mean not just personnel, I mean accommodation for the numbers of persons required”. 
 
She said that under new regulations on social distancing, “suddenly a building that could take 100 people six months ago, can now only take 20 people.” Ms McNally said the “only means of appropriately overcoming that is with proper investment in the infrastructure, and by that I mean: rent buildings”. 
 
She said that court houses were not proving large enough for their intended purpose, and said that other spaces would have to be rented. “You’ll have to bring the jury to a ballroom somewhere, so that they can be empanelled,” she said, adding that there are significant backlogs emerging within the legal system. 
 
Ms O’Boyle called for appropriate investment in systems to allow for remote hearings. “If we are going to ensure access to justice going forward, we will have to adopt a model of remote hearings.” 
 
Dr David Kenny, a Trinity College Dublin academic giving evidence on behalf of the university’s Covid-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory, said other considerations emerged along with the benefits of remote hearings, including that justice be seen to be done in public. 
 
“It would be very important to provide for that in an ongoing way, but also to consider that if we make court hearings much more accessible by being available online, that also raises some privacy concerns in terms of the details of people’s lives that can be put out in court hearing,” he said 
 
“That’s quite different perhaps for that to be heard by a few people who come to court to hear it versus if that is available online or available in a lasting way,” he said. 
 
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