Video-links should be kept on after the pandemic for straightforward civil court hearings, which can cover matters like debt, housing disputes and bankruptcy cases, a majority of Scottish solicitors have indicated.
Continuing some routine cases virtually would save significant amounts of travel time, waiting around at court and reduce costs, according to the survey by the Law Society of Scotland.
Nearly eight in 10 civil court solicitors said some remote hearings should continue after the Covid-19 outbreak, with 99% agreeing simple procedural hearings should be conducted virtually going forward.
However, just a tiny minority thought more complex hearings requiring live evidence and determined by judges would work well remotely.
Concerns were raised over difficulties in determining the credibility of witnesses, a lack of face-to-face scrutiny and issues over people feeling “disengaged with proceedings”.
Other issues highlighted include technological failures and limitations, and losing the formality of court proceedings.
Around one-third of solicitor respondents said they had encountered no practical difficulties with remote hearings, but 45% agreed it was “challenging to obtain clients’ instructions”.
More than four in ten thought their clients struggled to either understand or join in proceedings and 23% of solicitors indicated it was more difficult to articulate their position on a video link.
Amanda Millar, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Covid-19 has instigated enormous change in the way we all work over the past year.
“The legal profession has adapted to this rapid change, however examining what has and has not worked well in relation to online proceedings will be essential as we begin to look at how civil courts should operate post-pandemic.
“We can draw useful insights from the survey findings and they will be helpful in considering what aspects, if any, of remote hearings could or should be incorporated into the civil court procedure longer term.
“While many of our members have indicated that remote hearings should continue in some form, there should be provision for in-person hearings, particularly in relation to more complex cases, but also for procedural hearings when required.”
The society surveyed its members in February and March, receiving 448 responses, said to be “broadly representative of the wider profession undertaking civil court business”.
Just five per cent thought “proofs”, a civil court hearing determined by a judge or sheriff, worked well remotely, with the figure at 3% for evidentiary hearings, such as a tribunal.
Some 91% said the move would save travel time, 75% said it saved waiting time, 69% that it reduced costs, and over half, at 55%, said it was more efficient than being at court in-person.
The Judicial Institute for Scotland is hosting a conference on Monday on post-Covid civil court business.
Other issues played out in civil courts include divorce proceedings, parental rights and responsibilities, adoption and road crash compensation.