Setting up for the hearing
Picture this, you get the call or email to find out you have a remote hearing in front of your favourite judge next week. What should you do? Firstly, it is important to check who is responsible for setting up the hearing and which platform will be used. Members of chambers have noted that certain platforms have some issues such as sound problems and being removed from the hearing, so it is good to be aware of those so you can deal with them.
Once you have received the link or pin for the hearing, flag the email or save it somewhere. This avoids scrolling through email chains and panicking before the hearing. I like to write down the pin in case the platform removes me by accident and cannot find the link.
It is essential to have a trial run, especially if you have not used that particular platform before. Ask the other advocates or rope in a family member to have a test call. This will ensure you have the correct software downloaded. There are little quirks to get used to with each platform and it is best to discover them in advance. It will also give you time to fix your microphone and webcam should you need to do so. Check your WiFi signal is secure and whether you need to move rooms to get a better connection. I recommend having your phone as backup just in case you have to rely on 4G last minute.
Next, make sure your client has the hearing information and check they are comfortable using it. Some courts will send out guidance with their hearing links but do not rely on these as they can still be confusing for the less tech-savvy. It is good to warn the client about possible technical difficulties, so they do not panic when things go wrong. Most platforms have the option to call into the hearing if they do not have strong internet access or use of a computer. Remind them that they will be asked to confirm that they are not recording the hearing and that they are in a private space on their own.
Check whether your client will have a paper or an electronic bundle. If they have an eBundle, it is a good idea to recommend that they use a separate screen, so they are not trying to watch and read on the same screen. Even a phone for the bundle will do. Explain how to navigate it. Remind your client that even though they will be at home alone, this is still a court hearing and they should dress and act appropriately.
Before the hearing starts
Before you start the hearing, it is very important to set up a separate means of communication. This is both for between the advocates and between yourself and client. This could include a WhatsApp group chat, giving your client a number to text, or simply advising them that you will call on a hidden number. This can be used for sorting issues out during the hearing and ensuring that you can re-enter the hearing should you be removed accidentally.
Plug in your laptop and open all your documents in advance. Try to join the link at least 15 minutes before. Some judges are known to join early and expect everyone else to be there. Be aware you are recorded from the moment you join the link so you do not say anything that you should be saying in private.
You can use multiple screens for the hearing. This ensures you are not constantly moving between programmes. Make sure you only log on in one device. If you do not have multiple screens, learn how to do a split screen on your laptop to keep multiple programmes open at once.
Check on the day that your microphone and camera are working. Make sure your background is clear and professional- this will not affect your advocacy but your client seeing your messy spare room may not inspire much confidence and may be a distraction. Ensure there are no confidential documents in the background of your video.
If you are in the office, avoid having more than one laptop in the same room. If your client has come to do the hearing in the room with you, either mute and silence one laptop or bring headphones and still mute.
During the hearing
Remember to mute yourself when not speaking. This avoids feedback and helps the one person who is speaking to come across clearly. Just as important as muting yourself, is unmuting yourself. Take a pause before you start, it is worth it.
During the hearing, give time for delay over the internet. This ensures that you are not speaking over the witness or the judge and makes everything run much more smoothly as no one misses anything.
As you start to speak, check that everyone can hear you and double check with each new witness. Speak slightly louder than you think you need to even though it will feel strange in an empty room. Set your second screen or documents at a good angle so you are not turning your head away from the microphone while speaking. It makes a big difference when your voice dips in and out so make sure they are set somewhere convenient so you can face the camera.
It is helpful to state both the paper bundle reference and the eBundle references because it means people who have different versions will not have to keep asking you for it. Give plenty of time to scroll to eBundles.
Keep your phone and other devices on silent as you would in court. If you are in the office, consider how to silence your landline so it does not interrupt you.
Other potential issues
Issues such as special measure should be dealt with as a preliminary issue and not as everyone starts to log on. If measures are agreed, ensure that you know how to implement them and do not simply rely on the host. If anyone requires an interpreter, consider the need for a hybrid hearing or how you will have the interpreter available for the person who needs it. You may have to have the interpreter on the phone separately.
If there are too many faces on the screen it can be confusing for the judge or the parties so ask people like trainees and pupils to switch their cameras off.
With remote hearings, you may need to more regular breaks. Most judges will be familiar with the platforms they are using but confirm that the parties know whether they should be leaving the hearing and re-joining in 5minutes or switching their camera and sound off.
You can use screensharing on most platforms and you should test it out before you try it. Screen sharing is very useful for showing video evidence or turning to documents when one of the parties is struggling with their bundle. Make sure you have the correct documents ready to share.
Learn how to put people in breakout rooms. These are when two or more people are in a part of the call by themselves and is only available on certain platforms. They are useful to allow advocates to take instructions and if you are called upon to use them, it is very obvious whether you understand how to join and leave them or not.
After the hearing, call or contact your client. With remote hearings the client may feel less involved and so it can be helpful to spend time during breaks and at the start and end of each hearing confirming that they heard and understood what was going on. If your client needs more regular breaks, do not be afraid to ask for them. When you call your client, turn off your video and double check you are both on mute.
Do not reach around your laptop or step away from your desk while your camera as on. It looks disorganised so if you absolutely have to move just switch your camera off for a second. However, you do not have to stare at the same point on the laptop so move between screens or have some of your documents in paper to read as you would normally. Mind your facial expressions; unlike in court, the client and other advocates are looking directly at your face the whole time and they will notice you rolling your eyes. The same rules as in court apply, so no coffee or snacks for you or your client.
Take some time to get to grips with the various platforms and features available to you. Your client is relying on you for everything to run smoothly and to come across as a competent professional who is in control of their case. Just as in a physical courtroom, little things can make a huge difference and I hope some of these tips are helpful to you.