Technology Keeps Courts and Tribunals Running During Covid-19

Since the moment lockdown occurred in March 2020, Covid-19 has posed many challenges for the public sector. That was especially true of justice where, with a backlog of court cases already in the system, organisations were keen to ensure that our courts and tribunals did not completely grind to a halt.

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) is the administrative body for courts and tribunals, working closely with the judiciary and other justice partners. We ensure proceedings take place across all our courts and most tribunals. We enforce Civil Court judgments and collect fines and other monetary penalties imposed by the courts, as well as managing funds awarded to minors and patients.

Pre-pandemic Modernisation

Prior to the pandemic, NICTS had embarked upon a modernisation programme which over the coming years will simplify and modernise the courts and tribunals system and enhance citizens’ access to justiceAs part of its work, the NICTS Modernisation team has been examining how technology could make the experience of courts and tribunals easier for everyone involved, how it could make services simpler to interact with and how it could increase efficiency and reduce the reliance on paper documentation.

The programme is looking at ways to avoid unnecessary courts and tribunals appearances and how we can ensure NICTS has an estate that is fit for purpose and adjusts to the technological changes taking place in the courts and tribunals system.

Focus and Acceleration

The Digital Modernisation team within NICTS had prior to the pandemic been working hard to rollout WiFi across courts and tribunals venues across Northern Ireland but Covid-19 accelerated that work.

Amid initial concerns about limiting the spread of Coronavirus, the number of court hearings and the number of venues hosting them were reduced significantly to five court hubs which operated with a limited number of physical hearings initially. 

In light of the physical operating restrictions, NICTS and the judiciary had to move quickly to ensure the majority of proceedings could take place remotely. The Digital Modernisation team worked with great urgency to provide laptops to staff who needed these and the courtroom technology was upgraded to guarantee that a range of business could take place across criminal, civil and family courts.

Embracing Innovation

Virtual courtroom capacity was significantly increased with the system ‘Sightlink’ deployed. This technology has been routinely used to enable defendants to appear at remand hearings in the Magistrates Court via live links.

However it has also been used since March 2020 to enable legal representatives, parties and witnesses to participate in remote or hybrid hearings across a range of courts and tribunals. With NICTS and the judiciary committed to the principle of open justice, journalists have also been able to access court hearings via Sightlink to follow proceedings.

While the majority of business continues to be dealt with remotely, the easing of lockdown restrictions in the summer of 2020 and the return to 16 operational courts and tribunals venues by September increased the appetite for more physical hearings.

This was all the more urgent in August, as jury trials had been put on hold.

Requirements for rigorous social distancing measures and other Covid

Craigavon Court Completed Jury Pods
Craigavon Court Completed Jury Pods
protection measures meant significant physical adaptations had to be made to some courtrooms in Laganside, Antrim, Newry, Craigavon, Dungannon and Coleraine to make sure they were capable of hosting Crown Court trials.

So instead of sitting side by side, social distancing meant individual pods were created for jurors with audio visual screens to enable them to follow key evidence. A total of 45 courtrooms have had their technology refreshed to date.

The establishment in January 2021 of a Nightingale venue at the International Convention Centre in Belfast to support courts and tribunals business has led to the creation of a Coroner’s Court venue capable of using remote technology, another hearing room which will be used for tribunals business and a jury empanelment area. Small claims court proceedings have taken place there and the findings of the Ballymurphy Inquiry were also delivered and relayed to venues across Belfast, families across the UK, the Irish Republic, the Netherlands, Australia and North America as well as the media.

All of this work has been achieved in close consultation with the judiciary, as well as the Public Prosecution Service, legal representative bodies, other justice partners and groups representing the victims of crime.

Dungannon Court Covid Mitigation
Dungannon Court Covid Mitigation
The deployment of technology in courts and tribunals has provided useful insights into the types of hearings that are best suited to being held remotely or in a hybrid format.

When the threat from Covid recedes and courts and tribunals normalise, NICTS will, in consultation with the judiciary and other key partners, draw upon those lessons and seek to retain those remote and hybrid hearings and practices that work best.

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